Sky under scan? China's largest radio telescope opens to astronomers

FAST, world's largest radio telescope starts operating in China
A 500-metre (1,640-ft.) aperture spherical telescope (FAST) is seen under construction among the mountains in Pingtang county, Guizhou province, China Reuters

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) has got National Construction Acceptance and is finally operational as the world's largest radio dish, it has been reported.

The new radio telescope, with a 500-meter dish, has double the collecting power of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which has a 305-meter dish and was until now the world's largest radio dish of its type.

The FAST will, however, undergo one final review at the end of September.

The world's most sensitive listening device, as well as, the largest filled-aperture radio-telescope is made up of 4,450 individual panels and cradled in a natural basin called the Dawodang depression in Southwest China.

Though the Russian Ratan-600 radio telescope has a larger footprint, but not as sensitive in the field of radio astronomy that has been around since 1937 when amateur astronomer Grote Reber built a 9-meter parabola in his backyard in Illinois.

"Our hope for FAST is an open-sky policy, with the goal of advancing the work of humanity," FAST Chief Scientist Li Di has said.

Jiang Peng, FAST's chief engineer and deputy director of FAST Operation and Development Center at NAOC, said the telescope, best known for detecting Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) and pulsars, had been open to Chinese astronomers since April this year.

A pulsar, which can give an insight into phenomena like gravitational waves, is formed when a giant star collapses into a rotating neutron star, emitting a beam of intense radiation that cannot be seen visually but can be listened to. FAST like telescopes listen for the beam.

"These observations could improve our understanding of high-energy physics, star evolution, and galaxy evolution," Jiang Peng added.

The $171 million has so far already discovered 130 new pulsar candidates, at least 93 of those confirmed with other radio telescopes, compared with the Arecibo facility that has discovered 200 pulsars since 1968, journal Nature reported.

FAST astronomers will also use its power to look for hydrogen -- the most plentiful and the oldest chemical element -- in space, Jiang explained.

"I'm super excited to be able to use the telescope," Maura McLaughlin, a radioastronomer at West Virginia University in Morgantown, said.

McLaughlin wants to use FAST to study pulsars, including hunting for them in galaxies outside the Milky Way, that are too faint to see with current telescopes.

The telescope will also boost the efforts of an international collaboration trying to spot ripples in space-time as they sweep through the Galaxy, she added.

Wholly funded by the government of China, FAST also saw collaboration between other organizations, including Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Its usage decision will be taken by the Chinese government.

The team is now working out how to store and process the enormous amount of data the telescope will churn out, and negotiations are on with the Chinese government to get additional funding for more data storage, Li said.