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Target in sight for giant telescope

Yang Jun and Chen Mengwei
Updated: Jul 4,2016 7:18 AM     China Daily

The Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in Pingtang county, Guizhou province, could be operational in September. [Photo/China Daily]

The final panel was placed onto the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope on July 3, putting the project on target to start searching the stars this year.

Situated in a natural basin in mountainous Pingtang county, Guizhou province, the Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, known as FAST, has a reflecting surface equal in size to 30 soccer fields, breaking the record set in 1963 by the United States’ 305-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Robots place the last panel of the radio telescope on July 3, 2016. [Photo/China Daily]

At 10:47 am on July 3, Yan Jun, general manager of the project, gave the order to fix the last piece. The process, which involved cranes and robots, took about 40 minutes and was marked with a fireworks celebration.

If things go as planned, after further trials, the telescope will go into service in September, said Zheng Xiaonian, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Astronomical Observatories, which is in charge of the project.

The facility has the potential to unlock the secrets of the origin of the universe and boost the search for extraterrestrial life, he said, adding that it will be the global leader for 10 to 20 years.

Official estimates say the telescope will be 10 times more sensitive than the Effelsberg 100-meter radio telescope near Bonn, Germany.

The FAST’s large hemispheric surface is made up of 4,450 triangular, 1.3-millimeter-thin panels. Each panel weighs 427 to 482.5 kilograms.

Patching these panels together took construction workers and robots 11 months, although the project has been a long time in the making. The idea was first mooted in 1993, and after winning government approval in 2007, construction was started on March 25, 2011.

The authorities in Guizhou hope to make the area around the FAST into a tourist attraction, with an astronomy theme park to be built about 8 kilometers away at a cost of 12 billion yuan ($1.8 billion).

However, visitors will be required to hand in all electric devices before approaching the telescope, while only traditional film cameras will be allowed, the government said.

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