China: World’s Biggest Radio Telescope Detects Two Pulsars During Trial Run

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China's FAST telescope in the Guizhou province. STR/AFP/Getty Images

The world’s biggest single-dish radio telescope has detected two pulsars during its trial run, scientists have confirmed.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), located in a rural part of China’s Guizhou province, achieved first light—the first use of a telescope—in September 2016. Once fully operational, the telescope will be used to try to solve some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. One of its primary missions is to detect interstellar communication signals, or, put simply, messages from alien civilizations.

Another primary goal is to observe pulsars—rotating neutron stars. These are some of the densest objects in the universe. They are the remnants of the gravitational collapse of massive stars, cramming about 1.4 solar masses' worth of matter into a sphere measuring just 12 miles across. On Earth, a teaspoon of matter from a neutron star would weigh over 1 billion tons.

Studying pulsars, named so because they appear to pulse as they spin, provides scientists with a natural laboratory to look at some of the most extreme conditions in the universe. 

Scientists at National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) said FAST discovered two new pulsars on August 22 and 25. These observations were then verified with the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

The pulsars have been named J1859-01 and J1931-01, and they are located 16,000 and 4,100 light years from Earth, respectively. The more distant pulsar spins at a rate of 1.83 seconds, while the closer at 0.59 rotations per second, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

Peng Bo, deputy director of the FAST project, said the results are promising, as a telescope of this size would normally need a trial of three to five years before it could obtain results like this. "It is truly encouraging to have achieved such results within just one year," he said.

Over the next two years, scientists working at FAST will make adjustments to the telescope to optimize its performance. During this time, Chinese researchers will be able to use it for early stage research. Peng said that once complete, the telescope will be open to scientists from across the world.