Ex­plor­ing the Uni­verse with “Eye of Heaven”

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Edited by Li Zhuoxi

Hu­mans have fan­ta­sized about ex­trater­res­trial life since an­cient times.

On Septem­ber 25, 2016, in a karst val­ley in Qian­nan Buyei and Miao Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture in south­west­ern China’s Guizhou Prov­ince, the Five-hun­dred-me­ter Aper­ture Spher­i­cal Tele­scope (FAST) was of­fi­cially launched to ex­plore the se­crets of outer space.

Mul­ti­ple Mis­sions

Or­di­nary astro­nom­i­cal tele­scopes are op­ti­cal, which means they can only gather and fo­cus visible light from other astro­nom­i­cal ob­jects. How­ever, many radio waves from astro­nom­i­cal radio sources are not visible to the hu­man eye, but can be de­tected oth­er­wise. The pri­mary ob­ser­va­tional in­stru­ment of radio as­tron­omy, a radio tele­scope is a spe­cial­ized an­tenna and radio re­ceiver used to cap­ture radio waves.

Dubbed the “Eye of Heaven” in China, the nearly 1.2-bil­lionyuan (about US$180 mil­lion) FAST project took 22 years from prepara­tory re­search to com­ple­tion, af­ter it was pro­posed by Chi­nese as­tronomers in 1994. Con­structed by the Na­tional Astro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­to­ries of China un­der the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, the tele­scope’s main struc­ture is as large as 30 football fields. FAST is the world’s largest and most sen­si­tive radio tele­scope, and China holds the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights to it.

FAST has rea­son to be proud. Upon com­ple­tion, the tele­scope’s com­pre­hen­sive prop­er­ties dwarfed Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Ob­ser­va­tory ex­po­nen­tially. It is 10 times more sen­si­tive than the steer­able 100-me­ter tele­scope near Bonn, Ger­many. The­o­ret­i­cally speak­ing, FAST can sense elec­tro­mag­netic sig­nals from 13.7 bil­lion light years away, a dis­tance close to the edge of the visible uni­verse.

FAST also shoul­ders ma­jor sci­en­tific re­search mis­sions. Its su­per sen­si­tiv­ity and de­tec­tion abil­ity of pul­sars’ grav­i­ta­tional waves are con­ducive to space ex­plo­ration, re­search­ing the ori­gins of the uni­verse and search­ing for signs of in­tel­li­gent life. FAST’S ma­jor func­tions in­clude seek­ing and re­search­ing pul­sars and search­ing for alien life.

Fa­ther of FAST

Many in­dus­try in­sid­ers be­lieve that FAST would not ex­ist with­out Nan Ren­dong.

Nan Ren­dong, chief sci­en­tist of the FAST project and a re­searcher with the Na­tional Astro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­to­ries of China, con­sid­ers FAST his baby as well. From early prepa­ra­tions to com­ple­tion, Nan was in­volved for all 22 years.

In April 1994, site sur­vey­ing for the FAST project started. At that time, Nan and his col­leagues be­gan more than a decade of prepara­tory re­search. To find the most suit­able place in the moun­tains of Guizhou to con­struct and in­stall a 500-me­ter aper­ture spher­i­cal tele­scope, Nan vis­ited more than 100 fun­nel-shaped nat­u­rally formed pits from 1994 to 2005. In those days, this was a mon­u­men­tal task be­cause of poor road con­di­tions. They re­turned to town at night and set out again the next day. Back then, many peo­ple in the moun­tain­ous ar­eas knew Nan.

Af­ter the pre­lim­i­nary field in­ves­ti­ga­tion, many mem­bers of the team re­turned to their old jobs, but Nan con­tin­ued trav­el­ing around China. To seek tech­no­log­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion, he took a train from Harbin In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in north­east­ern China to Tongji Univer­sity in east­ern China, and then to Xid­ian Univer­sity in north­west­ern China. He also at­tended many in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences and talked to ev­ery­one he met there about the FAST project. “I be­gan to be very nice to ev­ery­one, hop­ing to get more global sup­port for the project,” grins Nan.

FAST is now ex­plor­ing the se­crets of the uni­verse. Ac­cord­ing to CNN re­ports, the mas­sive engi­neer­ing and sci­en­tific project is con­sid­ered a ma­jor step in hu­man­ity’s quest to de­ter­mine whether we are alone in the uni­verse. The de­vice has the potential to change our un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse and ideas about life on other plan­ets.

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