For the last 53 years, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has been known for having the world’s largest radio telescope; however, there is now a new facility located in the southwestern portion of China in the Guizhou province that has earned that designation.
Calling the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) large, though, doesn’t even begin to give you a feel for its enormous size; after all the telescope is roughly the length of 20 football fields placed end to end. As you might imagine, FAST is able to outperform all other telescopes of its kind as it is 10 times more sensitive than the previous most powerful telescope in the world, the steerable telescope located close to Bonn, Germany. Because FAST can create a parabolic mirror, it is also more flexible than other telescopes, as well.
To build the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, the Chinese government-funded Chinese Academy of Sciences spent 1.2 billion yuan (about U$180 million), with the project taking five years to complete. Moreover, it is believed that FAST will remain the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope for roughly 10 to 20 years until another facility is able to advance on its technology.
Initially, there were concerns about what the Chinese were planning to do with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope; however, representatives of the Chinese government have repeatedly assured the world that its intentions are peaceful. The project is being framed as an extension of the Chinese desire to become a leader in space exploration, with researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences now hoping to gather new information and insights about space. In addition, they are hoping that with a telescope of such grand size and amazing capabilities that they can enhance the possibility of finally making contact with extraterrestrial life, if there is any out there waiting to be discovered.
Of course, only time will tell what FAST will uncover, but one thing for certain is that the Chinese government’s investment of money and time in the project indicates that FAST is part of the country’s overall push to create a viable, cutting-edge space exploration program in China. Furthermore, China is also solidifying its status as a world superpower by firmly turning its attention towards the stars.
While we are likely to learn a lot more about our universe through the information that FAST will provide, there is a human story to go with the astronomical innovation. An estimated 9,000 people were forced out of their homes and relocated to areas close by in order to make room for the telescope and ensure radio silence during its use.