China's Enormous Alien-Hunting Telescope Is Now Fully Operational

The world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope has now begun formal operations.

Known as the Five-hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the facility, located in a deep depression in southwest China's Guizhou province, will help astronomers to shed new light on the evolution of the universe, and even search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

FAST began trial operations in September 2016, but will now gradually become available for use by astronomers from around the world, Chinese state media Xinhua reported.

The telescope consists of a single dish, which has a diameter of 500 meters (1,640 feet) and an area equivalent to 30 football fields. According to Chinese officials, FAST is around 2.5 times more sensitive than the previous largest telescope in the world—the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico—and can process up to 38 gigabytes of information every second.

"Arecibo and FAST are the only two radio telescopes of their type, i.e., built into large depressions in the local terrain and pointed straight up all the time," Rick Fienberg, a spokesperson from the American Astronomical Society, told Newsweek.

"Arecibo is 300 meters, whereas FAST is 500, so it's quite a bit bigger. But the technology, as far as I'm aware, is much the same in the two places, since Arecibo's receivers have been updated several times over the decades," he said.

In total, FAST —whose nickname "Tianyan" means "Eye of the Sky or "Eye of Heaven"—has expanded the range of space that telescopes can investigate, providing unprecedented opportunities to study astronomical phenomena, Li Kejia from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University told Xinhua.

Among the phenomena FAST will be studying over the coming years are pulsars—incredibly dense, relatively small stars with powerful magnetic fields that can rotate hundreds of times per second and shoot out intense beams of radiation.

FAST telescope, China
This picture, taken on September 24, 2016, shows the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in Pingtang, in southwestern China's Guizhou province. STR/AFP via Getty Images

In fact, FAST has already identified 102 new pulsars over the past two years during its trial period, according to Xinhua. Part of the research at FAST will also be focused on is looking for potential extraterrestrial signals.

"In the process of observing signals from celestial bodies, we also collect signals that might be emitted by humans or extraterrestrial intelligence," Zhu Ming from FAST told Chinese state TV network CCTV.

"However, this is a huge amount of work, since most signals we see—99 percent of them—are various noises, so we need to take our time to identify the signals we want in the noises," Zhu said.

The construction of FAST was completed in 2016, around two decades after it was first proposed by Chinese astronomers. Altogether, the project cost 1.2 billion yuan, which is equivalent to around $174 million.

This article was updated to correct the name of Rick Fienberg.