Construction complete on the world's largest radio telescope in China

UAV image of China's FAST radio telescope(Credit: National Astronomical Observatories FAST project)

With the installation of a final triangular panel on July 3, 2016, construction has been completed on the gargantuan Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in Dawodang, Kedu Town, Guizhou Province, China. Upon commencing operations in late September, the 1.5 billion yuan (US$ 180 million) FAST telescope will become the most powerful single-dish radio detector in the world.

The concept for the vast telescope was first proposed in 1994, but the logistical nightmare of finding an appropriate site for the enormous dish prevented the Chinese government from giving a final go-ahead on the ambitious project until relatively recently, in 2007.

Dawodang, Kedu Town was eventually selected as the site of the radio telescope in no small part thanks to the presence of the surrounding mountain formation, which will act to sheild FAST's delicate instrumentation from local radio disturbances.

Less than 6 years after the official start of the construction project, the last of 4,450 panels has been installed atop an impressive cable-net frame. When manipulated by actuators located at the base of the structure, the swarm of panels combine to form a single parabolic radio reflecting dish with a surface area the equivalent of 30 soccer fields.

"FAST will enable Chinese astronomers to jump-start many scientific goals, such as surveying the neutral hydrogen in the Milky Way, detecting faint pulsars, and listening to possible signals from other civilizations," said NAN Rendong, general engineer and chief scientist for the FAST project. "It's time for China to have its own big telescope."

In the coming months, the team responsible for the operation of FAST will be engaged in testing the telescope's many delicate systems to ensure that it is ready for its first set of observations, which are set to begin sometime in September this year.

Astronomers across the globe are eagerly anticipating the next generation of powerful terrestrial and orbital observation platforms. Alongside the FAST telescope, upcoming assets such as the European Extremely Large Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the addition of the European Virgo laser interferometer to the LIGO gravitational wave hunters will allow astronomers to gain a deeper understanding of the complex nature of our Universe.

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