THE world’s largest radio telescope began operating in southwestern China yesterday, a project which will help humanity search for alien life.
The 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST, nestled between hills in the mountainous region of Guizhou Province, began working around noon, as hundreds of astronomers and enthusiasts watched the launch of the telescope in the county of Pingtang.
Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million), the telescope dwarfs the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as the world’s largest radio telescope, with a reflector as large as 30 football fields.
Researchers said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, said that the telescope’s high degree of sensitivity “will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy.”
“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told CCTV.
“In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us,” Qian said.
Installation of the 4,450-panel structure, nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, started in 2011 and was completed in July.
CCTV said during a recent test, the telescope received radio signals from a pulsar that was 1,351 light-years from Earth. FAST has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and five to 10 times the surveying speed.
China has also completed the construction of tourist facilities such as an observation deck on a nearby mountain.
Starting from today, the “scenic zone” around FAST will be open to tourists on a trial basis. A daily ceiling of 2,000 tourists, at a ticket price of 368 yuan each, will be allowed to visit the observation deck to observe FAST.
The zone will also feature a 300-hectare cultural park. The park, located more than 5 kilometers from FAST, includes a 5,000-square-meter planetarium to provide an interactive experience.
To prevent interference with FAST’s operations, visitors are required to deposit all their electric gadgets, such as mobile phones, digital cameras and smart wristbands, before entering the observation deck.
FAST’s tasks include observation of pulsars as well as exploration of interstellar molecules and interstellar communication signals. The telescope is expected to discover twice the number of pulsars as are currently known, said Sun Caihong, its deputy chief technologist.
FAST is believed to be the world’s most sensitive radio telescope. Engineers have said it is so sensitive it could capture the signal of a cell phone being used on the moon.
To ensure the telescope’s performance, more than 8,000 locals are being resettled from their homes to make way for the project, which requires radio silence within a 5-kilometer radius.
A relocation budget of about 1.8 billion yuan has come from the poverty relief fund and bank loans. Over 600 apartments have been built-in two new settlements, about 10 kilometers from their original homes.
The villagers will be compensated in cash or with new housing. Those who lost their land will also be compensated.