World’s largest radio telescope starts operating in China

September 25, 2016

The world’s largest radio telescope began operating in southwestern China Sunday, a project Beijing says will help humanity search for alien life.

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), nestled between hills in the mountainous region of Guizhou, began working around noon, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Built at a cost of 1.2 billion yuan ($180 million), the telescope dwarfs the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, with twice the sensitivity and a reflector as large as 30 football fields, it said.

FAST will use its vast dish, made up of 4,450 panels, to search for signs of intelligent life, and to observe distant pulsars — tiny, rapidly spinning neutron stars believed to be the products of supernova explosions.

China sees its ambitious military-run, multi-billion-dollar space programme as symbolising the country’s progress. It plans a permanent orbiting space station by 2020 and eventually a manned mission to the moon.

Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the launch, with reports Sunday that he had sent a congratulatory letter to the scientists and engineers who contributed to its creation.

The telescope represents a leap forward for China’s astronomical capabilities and will be one of several “world-class” telescope projects launched in the next decade, said Yan Jun, head of China’s National Astronomical Observation (NAO), according to Xinhua.

In a test run before the launch, FAST detected electromagnetic waves emitted by a pulsar more than 1,300 light-years away, state media reported an NAO researcher as saying.

Earlier Xinhua cited Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, as saying that the telescope’s high degree of sensitivity “will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy”.

Experts have been hunting for alien intelligence for six decades, pointing radio telescopes at stars in the hope of discovering signals from other civilisations, but have not yet found any evidence.

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