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.