China to Finish Building World’s Largest Radio Telescope in 2016

September 23, 2015 | Sarah Tse

The Arecibo Observatory and radio telescope in Puerto Rico.
Photo credit: The Arecibo Observatory, formerly the world's largest radio telescope. FAST will be almost 200 meters wider when completed.

The Chinese expect to finish building ta 500-meter radio telescope in 2016, giving them a definitive edge in discovering celestial phenomena.

The world’s largest radio telescope has begun to take shape in China. Once it’s completed in 2016, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) will detect astronomical objects from stars and galaxies to pulsars and quasars.

FAST is being constructed in a natural bowl-shaped valley in the Guizhou province of southwest China. Its half-kilometer-wide dish will occupy the entire valley, which will help the instrument pick up radio messages from much farther away than ever before. It would take about forty minutes to walk around the dish’s 1.6 km perimeter, and the entire instrument can only be seen from the top of a nearby hill. Luckily, the team will build a hill-top observation platform open to the public once their first priority of completing the telescope is out of the way.

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In a report by Xinhua news agency, chief scientist Nan Rendong said, “A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to distinguish meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe. It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm.” The telescope’s isolated location will also help to eliminate any interference from towns or cities so it can focus on receiving the weakest signals.

Technicians can shift the dish to pick up signals from different angles by controlling the dish’s panels down to an impressive accuracy of 1 millimeter. The team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences also intends to build a supercomputer to support the instrument’s vast data storage and processing needs.

Radio telescopes operate by collecting data from the radio frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like optical telescopes detect visible radiation. Objects in the universe emit electromagnetic radiation, or energy waves, from all over the spectrum— ranging from super high frequency gamma rays to the lowest frequency radio and microwaves. Analyzing low energy radio-waves can reveal a whole new world of cosmic objects that are invisible to the human eye.

Scientists hope that FAST will successfully capture radio signals from as far away as tens of billions of light years, providing an unprecedented glimpse into the inception of the universe and its potential for extraterrestrial life.

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