Humanity’s hunt for life amongst the stars has received another boost as the World’s largest radio telescope has just gone operational, in China. The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST as it is more commonly known as, went live on Sunday and began hunting for incoming signals from outer space.
First proposed in 1994, the project was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in July 2007 and it was then that work began in earnest. The last panel on the telescope was installed on the 3rd of July 2016 and this Sunday, China’s space ambitions took another huge step forward as the telescope went operational.
The FAST radio telescope has a fixed primary reflector that is located in a natural hollow. To give the area a radio quiet environment, a 65-person village was relocated from a valley. What’s more, an additional 9,110 people living within a 5 km radius of the telescope were relocated to other areas. This has led to an area that will allow the telescope to pick up any signals coming in from outer space, without interference from those created by humans.
Originally provided with a budget of CN¥700 million, the final cost of setting the device up turned out to be CN¥1.2 billion or US$180 million.
The fixed primary reflector focuses radio waves on a receiver suspended almost 140 m (or 460 ft) above it.
The FAST telescope’s surface is made up of 4450 triangular panels, that have been arranged so as to give the apparatus the shape of a geodesic dome. The telescope is controlled using a bunch of actuators under the surface, that turn it into an active surface.
(Just in case its not clear, an actuator is a component of machines that can moving or control a mechanism.)
The joints between the panels can then be used to deform the flexible steel cable support into a parabolic antenna, that can then be used to align the telescope with the desired direction in the sky.
Speaking on the topic with the state broadcaster CCTV, Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said
The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe.
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 (spinning neutron star) is approaching us.
China has really been doubling down upon its space programs in recent years. The country’s military, which is one of the largest in the world, has also been taking an active interest in its space programs. The country launched its second space station this month, days before it lost control of its first. Beijing is also looking to launch a mission to mars soon.
Interestingly enough, though the reflector diameter is 500 meters, only a circle of 300 m diameter is used — that is, illuminated by the receiver) at any particular time. However, the telescope does have a 500 meter diameter that is available for use, and hence the name. FAST also has a huge total collective area of almost 70000 m2.
With this, China surpasses the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and is currently in possession of the most capable radio telescope in the world. So yeah, if aliens do decide to contact us someday using the appropriate radio signals (Upto 3 Ghz) there is a fair chance that they will receive some Mandarin from the other end.