China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST)—which is the single largest and most powerful radio telescope in the world—is now 100% operational. Though the telescope was finished in 2016, the past four years were dedicated to testing and commissioning before allowing full operation. Despite not having access to the full 500-meter aperture, FAST had already discovered two pulsars by 2017, and 100 more over the next three years. Now that it’s finally up and running, astronomers expect that FAST will make quite a few discoveries, especially over the next couple of years.
History of FAST
The construction of FAST was completed in 2016, some twenty years after Chinese scientists initially proposed the idea. It cost nearly 1.2 billion yuan ($170 million) to complete and was built in a naturally occurring deep and round depression in the Guizhou province of Southwest China. It’s staffed primarily by members of the Chinese National Astronomical Observatory, a subsection of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, though they encourage scientists worldwide to use it for research. Ten scientists from the United States, Britain, and Pakistan have already used the telescope. FAST anticipates more collaboration from astronomers and astrophysicists across the world—particularly for gravitational wave detection and very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI).
FAST boasts over 4,400 individual panels, each adjustable for viewing different objects in the cosmos. Credit: FAST, NDRC, NAOC
The telescope's total diameter is 500 meters, though only 300 meters of the total is used at one time. The dish consists of 4,450 individual triangular-shaped panels, each capable of being adjusted for various observations. Nicknamed the “Eye of Heaven,” its sheer aperture size and unique individual-panel flexibility mean it’s capable of viewing up to four times the volume of space compared to other radio telescopes in existence. It’s also about 2.5 times as sensitive as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which was previously known as the largest telescope on Earth.
The Future of Radio Astronomy
Now that FAST is fully operational, it’s gaining a lot of interest and traction in the scientific community (though there are apparently some issues with having enough staff). It’s a revolutionary telescope, quite capable of changing the landscape of radio astronomy. Li Kejia, a scientist at Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University, believes that with FAST, "scientists can discover more unknown stars, cosmic phenomena and laws of the universe, or even detect extraterrestrial life." Though these claims are somewhat grandiose, the overall capability of FAST makes all of these a real possibility. FAST has only been fully operational for a short time, but the next few years should prove quite exciting and fruitful for scientific discovery.