For over five years, China has been building the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), a massive single-dish telescope that is the largest of its kind in the world. This summer they completed construction, and this past weekend, the telescope was finally switched on, manifesting China’s hopes to reemerge as a scientific world leader.
FAST is larger than the Arecibo Observatory, the radio telescope in Puerto Rico that used to hold the title of world’s largest. FAST’s diameter is 1,640 feet, and the dish is comprised of 4,450 triangular panels. It possess a “collecting area of 2.1 million square feet” – about as much as if nearly 450 basketball courts were collecting signals from space. It reportedly cost $184 million to build, although The New York Times said that appears to be a modest figure. Around 9,000 locals had to leave their homes to make way for its construction, and some say the new homes were poorly constructed.
China’s president Xi Jinping spoke for the occasion, referring to FAST as the country’s “eye in the sky.” He said the radio telescope will assist China as they make “major advances and breakthroughs at the frontier of science.”
Although it’s fun to discuss FAST’s potential ability to probe for extraterrestrial life, listening in on alien conversations isn’t China’s primary goal for the radio telescope. Scientists could utilize FAST to map the night sky and explore further than possible with smaller telescopes. FAST could help astronomers investigate gravitational waves or determine how rapidly our universe is expanding. Still, alien hunters will be able to search for signals of extraterrestrial life. Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at the University of California, Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, told The New York Times, “We can use the telescope at the same time that they’re doing more traditional astronomy to look for E.T.”
Thrilling discoveries are likely a few years out; for the first year or longer scientists will probably have to fine tune the equipment. But researchers seem hopeful. Astrophysicist Zhang Chengmin of the National Astronomical Observatories said, “Now we’re racing to catch up and want to recreate the glories of our ancestors by reviving our astronomy. China isn’t just an economic power; it is also becoming a scientific power.”