MYSTERY WIRE — The hunt for alien life is about to get a large boost from a Chinese owned telescope. This is not a normal telescope though. It is called FAST, an acronym for Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope.
FAST is a radio telescope, not one you can look through. And it is massive. By the numbers it is, of course, 500 meters across, or a little over 1,640 feet, or a third of a mile wide. Main construction actually ended in 2016, but it has been undergoing testing and certification for several years before beginning its main mission of looking into deep space.
At any given time astronomers will only be using 300 meters of its surface because the telescope is active and the usable portion can change so that one 300 meter segment is focused on the receiver.
Before FAST was complete, the largest radio telescope was the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Both FAST and Arecibo are parabolic dishes, and both can only use a portion of their area at a time. But FAST is not just larger, it’s operated differently and is more flexible. Arecibo is a fixed shape, FAST can actually change its surface shape.
According to a report in UniverseToday.com, FAST has almost 4,500 individual panels, controlled by more than 2,200 winches below its surface which can be moved to different angles.
Arecibo can use its entire surface to observe something directly overhead, but even then it’s 221 meters across, much less than the usable surface of FAST.
It cost China about $170 million US to build and is operated by the Chinese National Astronomical Observatory, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. China says it will allow international researchers to use FAST.
FAST’s science goals include:
- Large scale neutral hydrogen survey.
- Pulsar observations
- Leading the international very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) network
- Detection of interstellar molecules
- Detect interstellar communication signals
- Pulsar timing array
One of the first uses of FAST will be to complete 2 sky surveys. This process alone will take about 5 years and another 10 years to analyze the data. But this is only about half of the telescope’s usable time. By 2017 during testing, FAST quickly discovered two new pulsars, and since then another 102.
FAST was completed in 2016, twenty years after it was first proposed. It cost about $170 million US to build. It’s operated by the Chinese National Astronomical Observatory, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. China intends to allow international researchers to use the facility, mirroring how other astronomical facilities are used around the world. So far, almost ten scientists from other countries have already used FAST.
Some researchers are also looking forward to FAST being used to search for extraterrestrial life according to Professor Zhang Tongjie, chief scientist of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).