26 Sep 2016

China's colossal radio telescope begins testing

9:32 am on 26 September 2016

The world's largest radio telescope, which has been built in China, is beginning an intensive testing phase.

The Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope in China.

The Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope in China. Photo: AFP

Chinese scientists report that the giant dish, which measures 500m across, is complete and has received its first signals from space.

It will now take three years to calibrate the instrument so it can become fully operational.

The facility, part of China's drive to become a science powerhouse, was opened at a ceremony on Sunday.

"This is very exciting," Prof Peng Bo, deputy project manager of the Five Hundred Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (Fast), told the BBC.

"For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations - and now we have the largest telescope. People can't wait to use it."

The radio telescope, located in a vast natural crater in Guizhou Province in southwest China, has been an ambitious project for the National Astronomical Observatories of China.

With its 500m dish made up of thousands of triangular panels, it dwarfs the former record holder, the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico with a diameter of 305m.

By comparison the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank in the north of England measures 76m across.

Yet despite the scale, construction took just five years and cost about $NZ250m

The telescope works by "listening" for radio waves emitted by objects in space.

Because this structure is so big, it is able to collect signals from the far reaches of the cosmos.

After construction was complete, Prof Peng said the instrument was able to detect radio waves from three pulsars, which are rapidly rotating, extremely dense stars. They are a key scientific target for the team.

However, he said much more work needed to be done before the telescope could begin to work to its full potential. This will involve testing, tuning and calibrating it.

"Normally a traditional telescope will take about two years to become fully functional, but Fast is so big, I would say we need three years before it is open to the world," said Prof Peng.

However, he added that the team would be able to carry out some science in this testing phase, and would be working with international astronomers.

Prof Nan Rendong, who is the mastermind of the telescope and its chief scientist, said that collaboration with the global scientific community would be a vital part of the project.

"As soon as the telescope works normally, a committee will distribute observation time according to the scientific value of the proposals. Proposals from foreign scientists will be accepted and there will be foreign scientists on the allocation committee."

The telescope will eventually become a powerful tool for astronomers. Once fully operational, it could transform our understanding of the universe - to see the first stars and even look for signs of life.

Prof Simon Garrington, associate director for Jodrell Bank Observatory, said it was a major achievement for Chinese scientists.

"It's a hugely ambitious project, and it's been carried out very efficiently. It's probably come on stream faster than any of us would have expected for such a complex project."

He added that the telescope would be a "huge boost" to the world's network of telescopes.

- BBC

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