Its official name is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). But that acronym doesn’t do it justice. FAST is big. Ridiculously big. Its monster dish measures 500 meters (1,640 feet) across. Today, Chinese scientists switched it on beginning a multi-year testing phase.
Here are seven facts you need to know about FAST:
It’s huge. FAST’s now holds the record for the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. Its dish stretches 500 meters across. Imagine about 30 soccer fields stitched together. FAST obliterates the previous record holder, the Arecibo Observatory. Arecibo’s dish stretches just 305 meters across and held the record for this type of telescope since the 1960s. You’ll recognize Arecibo if you’ve ever seen the movie Contact.
FAST is 200 meters larger. Crazy, right?
FAST hunts for life, gravitational waves and pulsars. Yep, FAST will be the lookout for E.T. “FAST’s potential to discover an alien civilization will be five to ten times that of current equipment, as it can see farther and darker planets,” Peng Bo, a research at the National Astronomical Observatories, told China’s official Xinhua news agency earlier this year.
But that’s not all FAST will look for. Scientists believe FAST will expand their understanding of pulsars, and in turn gravitational waves.
It’s more sensitive. FAST is twice as sensitive as Arecibo and can survey 5-10 times faster than the previous record holding telescope. Better instruments mean better observations. FAST can see fainter planets, fainter pulsars and fainter galaxies. The observations made in the coming years is expected to increase our understanding of the how galaxies evolved and shed light on the origins of the universe.
4,450 triangular panels. The 500-meter radio telescope is made up of 4,450 triangular panels. Take a look at workers placing the final panels back in July.
FAST sits in radio silence. Don’t plan on watching Netflix near this telescope. Radio telescopes don’t work well if there’s any interference nearby. That’s why there is a “radio silence” area around FAST.
A similar area is set up in the U.S. near the Green Bank Telescope. The National Radio Quiet Zone covers large parts of West Virginia and Virginia. Radio transmissions in this area are restricted by law. The heaviest restrictions are located in a 20-mile radius around the Green Bank Telescope. Officials keep an eye out for any devices emitting high amounts of electromagnetic radiation in this area. Think WiFi routers and microwave ovens.
FAST sits in a remote area where the nearest town is at least 5 kilometers away. Around 9,000 residents were forced to move as the telescope was being constructed.
FAST record. While FAST holds the record for the largest radio telescope today, it probably won’t hold it for more than 50 years like Arecibo did. Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observatory (NAO) believes FAST will be the best in its class for the next 10 to 20 years.
China’s FAST push into space. FAST is just another example of China’s push into space exploration. President Xi Jinping is serious about China’s ambition. Three years ago, the country landed the first rover on the moon since 1976. China recently launched another space lab as it prepares to build a space station by 2022. And they want to land a man on the moon by 2036.
We are seeing another space race unfold, and I’m all for it. Competition is a good thing. The more countries and private space companies push into the final frontier, the better. I want to see humans set foot on another world in my lifetime.
FAST will undergo a lengthy testing phase over the next few years. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be time for science. Chinese astronomers will get their first crack at FAST. The rest of the world? Scientists from around the world will be waiting two or three years before they can get their hands on FAST’s large dish.