This past September, China put on the "ear phones" and flipped the "ON" switch for the world's largest, most powerful radio telescope nestled in a vast, bowl-shaped valley in the mountainous southwestern province of Guizhou. The unrivaled precision of the FAST telescope will allow astronomers to survey the Milky Way and other galaxies and detect faint pulsars, and work as a powerful ground station for future space missions. With a dish the size of 30 football fields, FAST, which measures 500 meters in diameter, dwarfs Puerto Rico's 300-meter Arecibo Observatory. Under new regulations, FAST requires radio silence within a 10-kilometer radius.
FAST is the world's largest single-aperture telescope, overtaking the Arecibo Observatory in the US territory of Puerto Rico, which is 305 meters (1000 feet) in diameter. The dish will have a perimeter of about 1.6 kilometers, Xinhua said. According to chief scientist from China’s National Astronomical Observations, Li Di, FAST is able to scan up to twice more areas of the sky than Arecibo, and it will have between three to five times the sensitivity. It’s in their hopes that if there is indeed alien life, this gargantuan will find it.
"A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe," said Nan Rendong, chief scientist of the FAST project. He told Xinhua that the huge dish enables much more accurate detection. "It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm."
The Chinese government hopes that a more subtle benefit of the behemoth eye on the cosmos will entice some of the some of the brightest minds in science or astronomy studying abroad to return home to China. China is the leading nation in the world in the number of students it sends students abroad, especially for majors such as science or engineering.
For years Chinese scientists have relied on "second hand" data collected by others in their research and the new telescope is expected to "greatly enhance" the country's capacity to observe outer space, Xinhua said. Beijing is accelerating its military-run multi-billion-dollar space exploration program, which it sees as a symbol of the country's progress. It has plans for a permanent orbiting station by 2020 and eventually to send a human to the moon.
The Daily Galaxy via AFP/Beijing