This Sunday, the largest radio telescope in the world has officially gone into business, reports Xinhua News.

“It’s like a big iron wok,” one local said.
Image credits Liu Xu / Xinhua.

FAST, the five-hundred-meter aperture spherical telescope, measures 500 meters in diameter. This makes it almost twice as big (195 meters wider) as the previous largest device of its kind, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — and more importantly, it will be almost twice as sensitive. It didn’t come cheap: Xinhua reports that the telescope cost US$184 million to build — although that seems rather modest given its size — and required the displacement of 8,000 people from the area to create a 3-mile wide radio silence zone around the dish.

But all this array will be put to good use. Like its counterparts around the world, FAST will be used to study the Universe farther away than anything else we have at our disposal. It’s going to be much more powerful than the rest, however, enough to pick up on things that they miss. Things such as mapping the shape of the Universe, or the behavior of molecules in other galaxies. It will also be on the look-out for pulsars, the imploded cores of stars which emit huge levels of radiation, and other-worldly radio signals. In one test, it picked up on radio waves emitted from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away.

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FAST will become the place to be for “observation of pulsars as well as exploration of interstellar molecules and interstellar communication signals,” Xinhua reports.

“In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian Lei, a researcher with the project, told Chinese state media.

There’s understandably a lot of international excitement for FAST. Earlier this summer, the Very Large Array in New Mexico desert picked up a faint radio signal. The team who made the discovery described it as a “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper detailing their findings, they write that “the next generation of radio telescopes” such as FAST will allow them to better describe how gasses behave in galaxies.

And, on the off-chance we do pick up on alien signals, FAST could allow us to talk back. In 1974, the Arecibo dish was used to broadcast a signal into deep space encoding images “the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life” and other information, SETI reports.

The telescope also shows China’s determination to come to the forefront of scientific progress. Alongside FAST, launches its own rockets and satellites, crashes space stations, and launches new ones. All of this takes a huge effort for any economy, even one as immense as the Chinese have.

“For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” Peng Bo, deputy manager of the FAST project, told the BBC.

The telescope will help China make “major advances and breakthroughs at the frontier of science,” President Xi Jinping of China said in a congratulatory message on Sunday. He called it China’s “eye in the sky.”