The world’s biggest and most powerful radio telescope has been switched on for the first time, following five years of construction in southwestern China’s Guizhou Province.
The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) contains 4,450 reflecting panels across its half kilometre aperture, and has a combined total area equivalent to 30 football pitches. Over the next two years it will undergo a debugging and testing phase to calibrate its instrumentation, after which it will be capable of surveying neutral hydrogen in distant galaxies, detecting faint pulsars, and searching for possible interstellar communication signals.
“Once completed, FAST will lead the world for at least 10 to 20 years,” said Yan Jun, director general of the telescope’s designer, builder and owner, the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC), which operates under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
The project was first conceived in 1994, with the natural bowl in Pingtang County, Guizhou Province selected following ten years of site surveys. According to CAS, the area’s high mountains and karst landscape protect against radio interference. After Chinese government approval in 2007, construction began in 2011. Once operational, FAST will be available to both Chinese and international scientists.
“As soon as the telescope works normally, the Time Allocation Committee (TAC) will distribute observation time according to the scientific value of the proposals,” said Nan Rendong, FAST’s general engineer and chief scientist. “Proposals from foreign scientists will be accepted as well. There will also be foreigners on the TAC.”
FAST takes over the mantle of world’s largest radio telescope from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which has an aperture of 305 metres.