China took a giant leap into the 21st century when it completed construction of the world’s largest telescope in the fall of 2016. An aerial view of the massive bowl-shaped dish aptly fits its given name – Tianyan – the Eye of Heaven. China spent 1.2 billion yuan, $180 million USD to build the high-tech listening device, some of which they hope to offset by tourism.
Concept to Construction
First conceived in 1993, the preliminary study project – the Knowledge Innovation Project – leaped its first hurdle in October of 2001 when it received support from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Science and Technology. It would take another six years before the project received approval from the National Development and Reform Commission in 2007 when it entered the feasibility study phase. A little more than a year later, the project received the green light and the initial design phase started. Construction began in 2011, and it took a little over five and half years to build the high-tech telescope, now in operation.
Bigger Than Arecibo
Situated above traditional rural villages that dot the foothills of the Guizhou mountains in Southwest China, more than 9,000 residents were relocated from a nearly three-mile radius needed to operate the equipment without radio interference. Situated in the Dawodang depression, known for its temperate climate, water drainage, and comprised of weather-resistant rock, the surrounding karst landscape creates an ideal location for the telescope because the mountains protect against radio frequency interference and keep winds down.
Almost twice the size of the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, the spherical-type Tianyan dish has a 500-meter diameter, or 1600-feet diameter. This means the telescope is nearly five football fields in diameter laid end to end (or could contain 30 soccer fields). The location in the Dawodang depression allows a peak angle of 40 degrees, an opening angle of between 100 and 120 degrees, and a 300-meter illuminated surface.
A special feature of the telescope allows the main reflector to correct for spherical abnormalities on the ground, necessary for the telescope to achieve full separation and a wide operational band without the Chinese having to install complex mechanisms. But with additional feed systems, the Eye to Heaven could achieve a southern zenith angle of 60 degrees, which would extend sky coverage past the galactic center.
Management and Staffing
Known as the five-hundred-meter aperture spherical telescope, FAST, 71 scientists, technicians and site professionals currently work for the project which began operation in September of 2016. Overseen by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the telescope has already completed several missions since it went live in September 2016.
An Ear to Heaven
While the telescope resembles an eye, its function mimics a highly sensitive ear because it listens to radio waves in space instead of capturing light like the Hubble telescope does. It can separate and distinguish the sounds it hears from the white noise background generated by stars and pulsars in space. The radio-spectrum telescope covers a frequency range in the 70MHz to 3GHz operational bands. The movable feed cabin for the bowl-shaped telescope hangs from cables above the dish and serves as the focal point for the radio waves. Because of the more than 39,000 individual panels that make up the dish surface, the telescope can change shape to better focus the radio waves. A parallel robot and a servomechanism creates a secondary adjustable system that allows for high-precision tuning.
Pulsars, Dark Matter and Alien Contact
Scientific goals and objectives for the highly sensitive telescope are multi-pronged: search for advanced alien life – entities who might be broadcasting radio waves into space – and map portions of the Milky Way. So far, some of the goals for the FAST telescope include improving sharpness of images relative to the Arecibo telescope by mapping:
- Black hole emissions
- Interstellar gas
Besides further enhancing what the Arecibo telescope has found, China’s scientists plan to start new searches for:
- Space’s first shining stars
- Dark matter
- Extragalactic and new galactic pulsars
- Radio signals from extraterrestrial life in conjunction with the US-based SETI organization
- Neutral hydrogen in ours and other galaxies.
Tourism: An Added Benefit
Entrance to the telescope is free, but it costs 50 yuan, $7.20 USD, to catch a shuttle bus ride to the site and an additional $7.20 to visit the local astronomical museum nearby. The goal is to make China’s newest scientific development a scenic landmark; but if you plan to visit, schedule your visit accordingly, as only 2,000 people per day have access to the site to avoid interfering with scientific operations.
Surpassing Scientific Achievements
With the opening of the Eye to Heaven, China has taken massive strides in surpassing the rest of the world’s leading scientific achievements. With a growing technologically progressive workforce, advances in multiple scientific disciplines, and plans to visit the moon, China currently boasts more scientific researchers than that of the United States and is presently outspending the European nation in scientific research and development.
- The Guardian: China Uproots 9,000 People for Huge Telescope in Search for Aliens
- Cornell University Library: The Five-Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) Project
- Ohio University: Five-Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) Cable-Suspended Robot Model and Comparison with the Arecibo Observatory
- China Daily: Scenic Spot Around Telescope to Open to Tourists
- Nature.com: Science in China
About the Author
As a journalist and editor for several years, Laurie Brenner has covered many topics in her writings, but science is one of her first loves. Her stint as Manager of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in California's gold country served to deepen her interest in science which she now fulfills by writing for online science websites. Brenner is also a published sci-fi author. She graduated from San Diego's Coleman College in 1972.