Nestled among the mountains in southwest China, the world’s largest radio telescope signals Beijing’s ambitions as a global center for scientific research.
The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) — the only significant instrument of its kind after the collapse of another telescope in Puerto Rico this month — is about to open its doors for foreign astronomers to use, hoping to attract the world’s top scientific talent.
The world’s second-largest radio telescope, at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, was destroyed when its suspended 900-tonne receiver platform came loose and plunged 140m onto the radio dish below.
Photo: AFP / National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences
Wang Qiming (王啟明), chief inspector of FAST’s operations and development center, told reporters during a visit by foreign journalists last week that he had visited Arecibo.
“We drew a lot of inspiration from its structure, which we gradually improved to build our telescope,” Wang said.
The Chinese installation in Pingtang, Guizhou Province, is up to three times more sensitive than the US-owned one, and is surrounded by a 5km “radio silence” zone where mobile phones and computers are not allowed.
Work on the FAST began in 2011 and it started full operations in January, working mainly to capture radio signals emitted by celestial bodies, in particular pulsars — rapidly rotating dead stars.
The 500m satellite dish is easily the world’s largest and cost 1.1 billion yuan (US$168 million) to build, as well as displacing thousands of villagers to make room for it.
China has said that from next year it would accept requests from foreign scientists wishing to carry out measurements.
“Our scientific committee aims to make FAST increasingly open to the international community,” Wang said.
Sun Jinghai, an engineering manager at the site, said that there would be a lot of take-up.
John Dickey, a professor of physics at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said that the results so far had been impressive.
“China is certainly a global center for scientific research, at the same level as North America or Western Europe,” Dickey said. “The community of researchers is as advanced, as creative, and as well-organized as in any advanced nation in the world.”
Improvements in scientific innovation have been rapid, said Denis Simon, an expert on Chinese science policy.
“China was viewed as an innovation laggard” only a few years ago, Simon said. “More and more discretion, and intellectual freedom, have been given to the scientific and engineering community to explore new ideas and take bigger risks in the research environment.”
“The risk-averse culture that was once predominant has given way to a more entrepreneurial culture,” he said.
This has included education reforms for new generations of scientists and engineers, he said.
A sign of the change in China’s mentality is that since 2018, foreign scientists have been able to lead state-funded projects.
“In many ways, the competition between China and the US is about a race for talent — and this race promises to build momentum as the competition between the two countries heats up,” Simon said.
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