Largest radio telescope on Earth switched on in China

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A bird's eye view of FAST(Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

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China is one step closer to leading the search for alien radio signals. On Sunday the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced that the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) has begun operations. FAST takes over the title of world's largest radio telescope from the 305-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

"Once completed, FAST will lead the world for at least 10 to 20 years," said Yan Jun, director general of the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC).

FAST will be able to do much more than just listen for signals from potential extra-terrestrial intelligence. The radio telescope will also help to study a number of aspects of the universe, like pulsars, the makeup of the Milky Way and more.

CAS says that following the completion of the telescope's construction earlier this year, it has officially been turned on and a testing and debugging phase is underway.

One of its recent trial observations involved receiving electromagnetic waves from a pulsar 1,351 light years away.

While FAST has been conceived, built and operated by China, CAS says the telescope will be open to the international science community.

"As soon as the telescope works normally, the Time Allocation Committee (TAC) will distribute observation time according to the scientific value of the proposals. Proposals from foreign scientists will be accepted as well. There will also be foreigners on the TAC," said Nan Rendong, FAST's general engineer and chief scientist.

FAST has been in the works since 1994, but the site in Guizhou Province was not chosen until 2007 and construction began in 2011. Over 8,000 local people are being moved and re-settled from the vicinity of the telescope, which must be free of radio interference for a 5-kilometer radius. That will also mean that all visitors must turn off their phones.

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