China set to commission world’s largest radio dish telescope

After nine years of construction, China is about to commission the $180m Fast radio telescope, by far the most sensitive dish device in the world. Although construction of the telescope was completed in 2016 – and it has already made intriguing astronomical discoveries – it has taken until now to tune the device into the universe.

The 500m Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, Fast for short, has twice the collecting power of the previous holder of the largest dish title, the 305m Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It is located in a natural limestone basin called the Dawodang depression in Guizhou, in southwest China, as far as possible from human-sourced radio waves.

It is made up of 4,450 aluminium panels that can be adjusted to create a 300m sub-dish that can be focused on particular bits of the universe with 10 times the sensitivity of Arecibo. The panels are moved by means of 2,300 steel wires that are connected to electrical motors. They can be adjusted to plus or minus 5mm.

The $180m device collects radio waves of between 10 and 4,300cm to listen in on a wide range of astronomical events, from galaxy formation to stellar collapse. It will also be used to survey "neutral" hydrogen, an important factor in understanding the dynamics of galaxies.

Earlier this month the telescope picked up a source of fast radio bursts (FRBs) – brief but powerful pulses of energy from distant parts of the cosmos. The origin of FRBs is a mystery, although it has been suggested that they are caused by black holes or neutron stars called magnetars.

Although the building work has been completed, Fast still has to undergo one final test, at the end of this month, to check that it meets the specifications in the original brief.

LI Di, Fast’s chief scientist and leader of the radio astronomy division of the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "We fully expect a successful review at the national level, and then we’ll transition from being a construction project to a full facility."

The scheme was funded by the government of China, however other organisations, such as Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation collaborated on the project. Universe Today reports that although Li is in favour of granting access to international scientists, decisions about granting access will be up to the government of China.

Image: The final product (Fast)

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