• The 500 metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) under construction. (NAOC)
A gigantic bowl of a telescope called FAST is under construction in China - and key components are being designed by CSIRO.
Signe Dean

6 May 2016 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 26 Sep 2016 - 11:15 AM

For some of the residents of China’s Guizhou province the past six years have been colourful, to say the least. Here, in the Dawodang valley, in 2011 the Chinese Academy of Science began an immensely ambitious construction project for the world’s largest radio telescope.

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) which cost 1.27bn yuan (or $246m) is now getting to its final stages, with completion scheduled for later this year.

It’s a gigantic bowl nestled in Guizhou’s Karst mountain range, a spectacular addition to already gorgeous natural scenery - and one that could tell us more about the universe than ever before.

Once functional, FAST will become not only the largest telescope of its kind on the whole planet, but also one of the most sensitive, able to receive more distant radio signals, and weak ones we may have previously missed.

Astronomers are hoping this will be the tool to boost our search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy and beyond - and also unveil more secrets about the origins of the universe.

In an interview with South China Morning Post Chinese astronomer Shi Zhicheng said that “if intelligent aliens exist, the messages that they produced or left behind, if they are being transmitted through space, can be detected and received by FAST.”

At 500 metres in diameter, FAST is going to eclipse the current largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, which stands at an impressive 300 metres.

To create a 5-kilometre electromagnetic exclusion zone around the telescope, earlier this year China relocated more than 9,000 people, offering each of them a compensation of roughly $2500.

Australian scientists have a hand in this project as well. China’s National Astronomical Observatories (NAOC) has teamed up with engineers from CSIRO to design and build one of the key components for FAST - a 19-beam receiver able to scan a large portion of the sky at a time, as opposed to most receivers used right now.

The reflector dish is made out of some 4,500 triangular panels which will be adjustable to form a curve corresponding to the segment of sky surveyed. As the radio signals are reflected, they will be transmitted to an Aussie-made receiver.

“The powerful receiver we’ve created for FAST is the result of our long history developing cutting-edge astronomy technology to receive and amplify radio waves from space,” says Dr Douglas Bock, Acting Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.

“FAST will make it possible for us to look for a range of extremely interesting and exotic objects, like detecting thousands of new pulsars in our galaxy, and possibly the first radio pulsar in other galaxies,” says Professor Rendong Nan from NAOC.

And don't forget - if we're going to hear from aliens, FAST is our next best bet.

Update (26 September 2016): The telescope is now complete and operational! Here's a picture of the final dish in all its reflective glory:

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