China has just released photos of its Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), located in the southwester Guizhou province’s remote Pingtang county, announcing to the world, the country’s plan to aid the global search for extraterrestrial life. And when the telescope was deployed, Sunday, China became the owner and operator of the largest radio telescope in the world.
Indeed, the machine is massive. FAST measures 500 meters in diameter and has been erected in a natural basin over five years (and the equivalent of $180 million), to surpass the size—nearly double—of the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory, in Puerto Rico. FAST has 4,450 panels and has been nicknamed “Tianyan”, which means “Eye of Heaven.” Construction was completed in July.
Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatories’ associate researcher Qian Lei comments, “The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe.”
Qian Lei continues, “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar is approaching us.”
While the telescope and the project are massively impressive on their own, the initiative also shows just how committed Beijing is to propel China into competition/collaboration with other international space research. Such projects require great investments of time and money with very little promise of return other than knowledge and, perhaps, prestige.
“Astronomy is an ultimate expression of ‘pure’ science that has little immediate practical benefits,” explains Luis C. Ho, who is the director of the Peking University Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. “It is a luxury that only the most advanced economies enjoy.”
Of course, China is racing to catch up with the space exploration advancements of the West. For example, Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observations astrophysicist Zhang Chengmin notes, “China isn’t just an economic power; it is also becoming a scientific power.”
But this is more a noble effort than one of power, after all, astronomy has always depended upon international cooperation. For example, Douglas Bock—who is a senior astronomer for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (the firm which built the FAST receiver)—explains “Radio astronomy is a very international field. The science collaborations naturally lead to many deeper technical collaborations on instrumentation and new telescopes.”