China looks set to be the new hub for deep space exploration – and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – as host to the world’s largest radio telescope. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) has been completed in the Guizhou Province, dwarfing the previous largest radio telescope, the 305-metre Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Currently undergoing its debugging and operational stage, FAST will gather radio signals from the cosmos, enabling it to catalogue pulsars; survey neutral hydrogen in distant galaxies; probe gravitational waves, dark matter, and fast radio bursts; and listen for possible interstellar communication signals. It will enable scientists to generate more reliable theories and models with which to verify modern physics and astronomy, and offers large potential for new discoveries.

“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) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

One of its recent trial observations involved receiving electromagnetic waves from a pulsar 1,351 light years away.

While FAST has been conceived, built and operated by China, CAS says the telescope will be open to the international science community.

Nan Rendong, FAST’s general engineer and chief scientist, said: “As soon as the telescope works normally, the Time Allocation Committee (TAC) will distribute observation time according to the scientific value of the proposals. Proposals from foreign scientists will be accepted as well. There will also be foreigners on the TAC.”

Douglas Bock, a senior astronomer at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, which built the receiver, added: “Radio astronomy is a very international field. The science collaborations naturally lead to many deeper technical collaborations on instrumentation and new telescopes.”

The telescope is expected to help China make “major advances and breakthroughs at the frontier of science,” according to President Xi Jinping. It forms part of an array of big, expensive projects which will raise China’s standing as a scientific power, including plans to send an astronaut to the moon by 2025 and to land an unmanned vehicle on Mars in 2020. Chinese scientists also plan to build the world’s biggest particle accelerator.

Via: Chinese Academy of Sciences, New Atlas, New York Times

Featured image: A bird’s eye view of FAST (Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences)