Move over, Arecibo. The title of “world’s largest single-dish radio telescope” now belongs to China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST).
The telescope, which had its official launch on Sunday, has already received astrophysical signals, China’s press agency, Xinhua, reports. The almost 1.2-billion-yuan (US $180 million) project was spearheaded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Like the 305-meter-wide dish of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, FAST consists of a spherical reflector dish that collects radio signals and focuses them onto the receiver system suspended above it. But FAST, which was built in a natural hollow in southern Guizhou province, also boasts an active reflector surface: Triangular panels that make up its dish can be moved to form a smaller, transient reflector, in order to focus and target different locations on the sky.
FAST’s dish can be deformed to target different areas of the sky. A subset of the mirror (left) can be used to create a parabolic surface (pink region, right).Bo Peng et al, Proceedings of the IEEE (Volume: 97, Issue: 8, Aug. 2009)
According to the FAST site, the telescope will have double the raw sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory. Among other things, it is expected to be able to hunt for the universe’s first stars, search for signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence, and enable the detection of new pulsars—the spinning remnants of dead stars—in our galaxy and others.
For more of a visual feel for the telescope, Rebecca Morelle of the BBC did a nice video tour, published in May.
Rachel Courtland, an unabashed astronomy aficionado, is a former senior associate editor at Spectrum. She now works in the editorial department at Nature. At Spectrum, she wrote about a variety of engineering efforts, including the quest for energy-producing fusion at the National Ignition Facility and the hunt for dark matter using an ultraquiet radio receiver. In 2014, she received a Neal Award for her feature on shrinking transistors and how the semiconductor industry talks about the challenge.