The world's largest single-dish radio telescope — Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) — has received its first signals from space. The behemoth, nestled in a natural crater in Guizhou Province in southwest China, will now be tested for three years before it becomes fully operational.
"This is very exciting," Peng Bo, FAST deputy project manager, told the BBC. "For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope. People can't wait to use it."
With a diameter of 500 meters (1,640 feet), the telescope, which cost nearly 1.2 billion yuan to build, dwarfs the 300 meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. In the words of Li Di — one of the scientists involved in the project — “if you fill it with wine, every one of the world's seven billion people could get a share of about five bottles.”
In November, Li Di told China Daily: "With a larger signal receiving area and more flexibility, FAST will be able to scan two times more sky area than Arecibo, with three to five times higher sensitivity.”
Installation of FAST — a structure made of over 4,400 individual panels — began in 2011, and required the relocation of over 9,000 people living within a 5 kilometer radius of the project. This was needed to create a "sound electromagnetic wave environment," as the telescope works by listening for faint radiowaves emitted by distant objects — natural or otherwise — in space.
"For over a half century, astronomers have been using radio telescopes to answer the haunting question, 'Are we alone?' But astronomers face a daunting challenge: the signals they seek are so weak that an incredibly sensitive telescope is needed to detect them," Douglas Vakoch, president of the U.S.-based nonprofit METI International, told Xinhua, adding that in the coming years, it may lead to "discoveries beyond our wildest imagination."
Although a concrete research plan for the telescope is yet to be outlined, studying distant pulsars, the distribution of galaxies in the local universe, and attempting to detect "interstellar communication signals" — a sign of technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization — will be key areas of focus, according to the project's website.
"As soon as the telescope works normally, a committee will distribute observation time according to the scientific value of the proposals," Nan Rendong, the project's chief scientist, told the BBC. "Proposals from foreign scientists will be accepted and there will be foreign scientists on the allocation committee."