China fires up world's largest radio telescope, boosting space agenda

Hoping to spur new discoveries, China has invited astronomers from around the world to use the facility. Nicknamed Eye of Heaven, the highly sensitive telescope could contribute significantly to global research efforts.
Hoping to spur new discoveries, China has invited astronomers from around the world to use the facility. Nicknamed Eye of Heaven, the highly sensitive telescope could contribute significantly to global research efforts.PHOTO: XINHUA

Scientists look forward to new advances while Beijing pushes on with ambitious space programme

BEIJING • The world's largest radio telescope has begun operating in south-western China, a project that experts say will help them better understand the workings of the universe.

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (Fast), nestled in the mountainous region of Guizhou, began working around noon yesterday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday sent a congratulatory letter to the scientists, engineers and builders involved in the project.

Boasting a diameter of 500m, Fast has overtaken the telescope at Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory as the world's largest single-aperture radio telescope. The latter is 300m in diameter.

Professor Donald Campbell, who teaches astronomy at Cornell University and is a former director of the Arecibo Observatory, told the South China Morning Post that the new telescope would make "significant contributions" to the understanding of the structure and history of the universe.

China has yet to announce a research plan for the telescope, but an early-stage study focused on six topics, including galaxy structure and the formation of stars, according to the study's website.

  • FACTS ABOUT FAST (FIVE-HUNDRED-METRE APERTURE SPHERICAL RADIO TELESCOPE)

  • Work on the project started in 2011 - 17 years after it was first proposed by Chinese astronomers.

    Costing 1.2 billion yuan (S$244 million), the telescope will be able to collect radio waves from previously undetectable distances in space.

    An additional 1.8 billion yuan was spent to relocate nearly 10,000 residents so no one would live within 5km of the telescope.

    The installation of the telescope's main structure - a 4,450-panel reflector that is as large as 30 football fields - was finished in early July.

    Fast supplants the telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is 300m wide, as the world's largest radio telescope.

    XINHUA, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Wu Xiangping, the director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, said the telescope's high degree of sensitivity "will help us search for intelligent life outside the galaxy".

Nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, the telescope can scour a much bigger swathe of sky for radio signals - and with greater sensitivity - than Arecibo is able to. Its surveying speed is also much faster, according to Xinhua.

Meti (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International president Douglas Vakoch said: "For more than half a century, astronomers have been using radio telescopes to answer the haunting question: 'Are we alone?'

"But they face a daunting challenge. The signals they seek are so weak that an incredibly sensitive telescope is needed to detect them."

Just last month, China launched the world's first quantum-communications satellite into orbit.

The successful launch, according to the Wall Street Journal, is set to propel Beijing far ahead of its global rivals in the drive to acquire a highly coveted asset in this age of cyber espionage - hack-proof communications.

Dr Vakoch also highlighted the new telescope's role in underpinning China's space programme, which launched the country's second space module earlier this month. The space lab of Tiangong-2 will dock with the Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft next month, state media have reported.

China's latest scientific achievement is likely to further entice international researchers to the country as it tries to catch up with the United States in generating discoveries, reported the Post.

Dr Vakoch noted that astronomers worldwide have been invited to use the facility at Pingtang county in Guizhou.

"By opening Fast to use by the broader international community, China is demonstrating its commitment to fostering astronomy as a global scientific enterprise," he told Xinhua.

Among those invited is Cornell astronomy professor James Cordes, who researches pulsars, gravitational waves and fast radio bursts.

University of Hong Kong scientist Stephen Ng said China's willingness to spend big money on basic research "creates a lot of opportunities for astronomers all over the world".

Dr Ng, who has been using telescopes in the US and Australia for his astrophysical research, said scientists from Hong Kong and elsewhere might head to China in the future to use its advanced facilities, reported the Post.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'China fires up world's largest radio telescope, boosting space agenda'. Print Edition | Subscribe