PINGTANG: Nestled in the mountains in southwest China, the world’s largest radio telescope signals Beijing’s ambitions as a global center for scientific research.
The 500m Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) – the only major instrument of its kind after the collapse of another telescope in Puerto Rico earlier this month – will open its doors to overseas astronomers to attract the best scientific talent in the world.
The second largest radio telescope in the world at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was destroyed when its floating 900-ton receiver platform detached and fell 140 m on the radio dish below.
Wang Qiming, chief inspector of FAST’s Operations and Development Center, told AFP during a rare visit to the foreign press last week that he had visited Arecibo.
“We were very inspired by its structure, which we gradually improved to build our telescope.”
The Chinese installation in Pingtang, Guizhou Province, is up to three times more sensitive than the US-owned one and is surrounded by a 5 km long “radio silence” zone, in which cell phones and computers are not allowed.
Work on FAST began in 2011 and went into operation in January of this year. They were mainly used to record radio signals from celestial bodies, particularly pulsars – rapidly rotating dead stars.
The 500 m large satellite dish is by far the largest in the world with an area the size of 30 soccer fields. It will cost 1.1 billion yuan ($ 175 million) to build and displace thousands of villagers to make way for it.
China has been rapidly improving its scientific qualifications to reduce reliance on foreign technology.
The most populous country in the world has so far only won one Nobel Prize in Science, which was awarded to the chemist Tu Youyou in 2015.
In the past two decades, China has built the world’s largest high-speed rail network, completed its Beidou geolocation system – a competitor to American GPS – and is now in the process of bringing lunar samples back to Earth.
China is investing billions in its military-led space program and has released a plan to become a global leader in artificial intelligence, space, clean energy and robotics by 2035.
The data collected by FAST should enable a better understanding of the origins of the universe – and help in the search for strange life.
China has announced that it will accept requests from foreign scientists who want to take measurements in 2021.
“Our scientific committee wants to make FAST increasingly open to the international community,” said Wang.
Sun Jinghai, a local technical director, predicted that there would be a lot of acceptance.
John Dickey, a professor of physics at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said the results so far have been impressive.
“China is certainly a global center for scientific research on a par with North America or Western Europe,” he said.
“The research community is as progressive, creative, and well-organized as in any advanced nation in the world.”
Scientific innovations have been improving rapidly, said Denis Simon, a Chinese science policy expert, adding that “China was seen as an innovation retarder only a few years ago.”
“The scientific and technical community has been given increasing discretion and freedom of thought to explore new ideas and take greater risks in the research environment,” he said.
“The risk-averse culture that once prevailed has given way to a more entrepreneurial culture.”
This included educational reforms for new generations of scientists and engineers, he said.
One sign of the change in the Chinese mentality is that foreign scientists have been able to lead state-funded projects since 2018.
“In many ways, the China-US competition is about a race for talent – and this race promises to gain momentum as competition between the two countries increases,” he added.