Image source: Nature News, link below


Topics: Astronomy, Gravitational Waves, Radio Astronomy, SETI


Set in a remote natural depression in the mountainous region of Guizhou, China, the world’s largest single-dish telescope is on the brink of sparking a new era in radio astronomy. But scientists also worry about the daringly complex structure of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).

“It will be the instrument of choice for any exotic object in its range,” says Matthew Bailes, an astrophysicist at the Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Australia. But “its design is so radical, we’re all wondering if it will work.”

On 25 September, FAST’s construction was declared officially complete. Some 200 scientists from around the world attended an inauguration ceremony and got their first look at FAST’s preliminary data, which will be used to debug the telescope. That process could take three years or more, says Peng Bo, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing and the project’s deputy manager.

Then teams from around the world will be able to bid for time to use the telescope, FAST chief scientist Nan Rendong told Nature.

Many observatories are open to international teams, but astronomers were unsure whether FAST would be. “This is critical to achieving the best possible science,” says astronomer Jason Hessels at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy in Amsterdam.

FAST has twice the effective collecting area of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and will scan twice as much sky (see ‘Galactic giant’). Size matters because many celestial objects are tough to detect. Spinning stars called pulsars and the cosmic clouds of hydrogen that hold clues to the origin of the Universe emit faint signals, whereas mysterious ‘fast radio bursts’ are transient. A larger -telescope increases the number of signals available, aiding the discovery and characterization of such objects.

Nan, who is an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, says FAST will also be able to detect molecules from outer space that are suggestive of life, and plans to enlist the telescope in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). The giant telescope is also likely to discover something completely unexpected, say astronomers.

Nature: Daring Chinese telescope is poised to transform astronomy, David Cyranoski

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