Caixin
Apr 07, 2021 07:33 AM
CHINA

China Gives Foreign Scientists Access to World's Largest Radio Telescope

Located in Pingtang county, Southwest China's Guizhou province, FAST covers an area equivalent to 30 soccer fields.
Located in Pingtang county, Southwest China's Guizhou province, FAST covers an area equivalent to 30 soccer fields.

China started accepting observation proposals from scientists around the world for its 500-meter aperture spherical radio telescope (FAST), the world's largest single-dish radio telescope.

Foreign scientists can submit applications online until May 15, the National Astronomical Observatory of China (NAO) said. Applications will be evaluated and results will be announced July 20. Observations will begin in August.

Also known as Tianyan, or Sky Eye, the telescope is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, built using China’s own technologies. The device is located in Pingtang county, Southwest China's Guizhou province, and covers an area equivalent to 30 soccer fields. FAST can detect objects 13.7 billion light years away. Since January 2021, the telescope has discovered 300 pulsars and contributed to research about fast radio bursts.

The light emitted from distant galaxies cannot be seen by the naked eye when it reaches Earth. So humans need radio telescopes with centimeter-level electromagnetic waves to "see" such celestial bodies. In 1937, Grote Reber, an American radio engineer, built the world's first radio telescope. With an aperture of about 9 meters, it helped scientists discover the radio sources of Cygnus, Cassiopeia and Sagittarius, marking the birth of radio astronomy.

FAST construction started in 2011, and the project was completed and commissioned in September 2016. The telescope immediately became a tourist attraction despite scientists’ concerns. In April 2019, FAST passed preliminary acceptance and opened to Chinese domestic astronomers. In January 2020, it passed the national acceptance and officially opened for operation.

Scientific observation time using FAST will be increased to about 5,000 hours in 2021. It is estimated that time allocated to foreign scientists will account for about 10% of the total, according to Zhu Ming, researcher at the NAO and the director of the Science and Data Department of the FAST Operation and Development Center.

The observation and data collection using FAST will be free, although scientists will need to pay for services such as preliminary data processing, copying and disk delivery. Most observation data will be available to the public after one year, according to Zhu.

According to the FAST Data Center Service Standard (2021), the regular storage and archiving service of FAST data is free of charge and fully funded by the Chinese government. The storage service of "basic observation data," defined by the data rate, is free as well. Value-added services include the use of the computer cluster in the FAST data center.

According to a statement on the FAST official website, the solicitation calls only for regular science proposals, which usually take observing time of no more than 100 hours. The total observation time allocated to such proposals will be 1,800 hours. The observation season is from August 2021 to July 2022. All proposals should clearly state the need for using FAST.

Zhu said FAST provided 3,000 hours of scientific observation time in 2020. The rest of the time was for debugging, internal maintenance and upgrades. FAST was inspired by America’s 305-meter Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico, Zhu said.

"Telescopes with a diameter larger than 100 meters are spread on the ground like the Arecibo Telescope, and the ground is used to support it,” Zhu said. “For FAST to be larger, it has to follow the same idea and rely on a large pit in the ground to support it."

Compared with the fixed Arecibo telescope with a 200-meter observation aperture, Zhu said FAST is composed of more than 4,000 movable panels. Each panel can be adjusted and stretched in real time to change the shape of the telescope, forming a parabola with an observation aperture of 300 meters. The debugging time of FAST took longer because more parameters are used to control the movable panels.

FAST observation results will be public assets. Zhu said the observation data belong to the observing team for internal use in the first year.

Contact editors Han Wei (weihan@caixin.com) and Bob Simison (bobsimison@caixin.com).

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