The world’s largest single-dish radio telescope began operating Sunday, in Guizhou province in southwestern China. Called the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, it is the culmination of five years of construction. With a collecting area of 2.1 million square feet, the dish is composed of 4,450 triangular panels. The diameter of the dish is about 500 meters, giving it twice the sensitivity of the world’s second largest single-dish radio telescope – the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
President Xi Jinping said on Sunday that the telescope will lead to “major advances and breakthroughs at the frontier of science,” referring to it as China’s “eye in the sky.”
The telescope will further the ability of scientists to map the shape of the universe, and discover the process of its formation. The size will speed up this process, and allow a deeper, more thorough exploration of these concepts. While it will offer increased knowledge for scientists, and prestige for China, it may offer few other direct benefits for the growing nation.
According to Chinese state news, the telescope cost 184 million – a relatively small figure given the scope of the project. The government is in the process of moving over 9,000 people from the area to make sure the project isn’t interfered with.
While the international community often sees Chinese science efforts as serving the practical economic and military needs of the nation, the telescope project seems to run counter to this. The telescope offers only to expand scientific knowledge of the universe, and perhaps win China prestigious acknowledgements such as the Nobel Prize.
“We’re definitely aiming for innovative results as quickly as possible, unearthing its potential for Nobel Prize-grade discoveries,” said FAST project scientist, Di Li. The project is part of a number of scientific undertakings meant to boost China’s status as a world scientific power. China’s space program is aiming to send an astronaut to the moon by 2025, and to land a probe on Mars in 2020. China plans to build the world’s largest particle accelerator.
According to SETI chief scientist Dan Werthimer, the FAST project is “keen to collaborate” with the Berkeley based project, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial life. “We can use the telescope at the same time that they’re doing more traditional astronomy to look for E.T,” he said.
Scientists plan to use the telescope to more accurately measure the distribution of neutral hydrogen atoms, which could potentially help scientists understand the rate at which the universe is expanding.