This handout photo taken Aug. 24, 2016 and released Dec. 13, 2020, by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) shows the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China's Guizhou province.
This handout photo taken Aug. 24, 2016 and released Dec. 13, 2020, by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) shows the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China's Guizhou province.

China has announced it will allow access by international scientists to its massive radio telescope — the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, in southwestern Guizhou province. It is now the largest and only instrument of its kind in the world following the recent collapse of a Puerto Rico-based observatory.

Ahead of the announcement, Chinese officials last week allowed international journalists access to the instrument, built in a natural basin between mountains in a remote area of Guizhou.  

Work on the FAST began in 2011 and it started full operations in January this year, at a cost of about $170 million. The telescope specializes in capturing the radio signals emitted by celestial bodies, in particular pulsars — rapidly rotating dead stars.  

The work it does is even more crucial since the December 1 collapse of the U.S.-owned Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. That radio telescope — second in size to FAST — was destroyed when its suspended 900-ton receiver platform came loose and plunged 140 meters onto the radio dish below.  

FAST's chief inspector of operations, Wang Qiming, told the French news agency, AFP, a team had visited Arecibo and drew a lot of inspiration from that structure. But Chinese officials say FAST is two- to three times more sensitive than the Arecibo instrument and has five to ten times the surveying speed. Plus, it can rotate, allowing access to a wider area of the sky.

Officials say they hope to open access to the telescope and its unique capabilities in 2021. Scientists using the Arecibo Observatory won a 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work proving the existence of gravitational waves by monitoring a binary pulsar. China hopes to attract similar scientific talent to the FAST telescope.