Get to know the universe better, and even detect extraterrestrials: the Fast radio telescope, the largest in the world (500 meters in diameter), has become the symbol of China’s arrival among the world leaders in research.
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Nestled in the verdant Pingtang Mountains in southwest Guizhou province, this giant satellite dish, as large as 30 football fields, will open up its powerful measurement capabilities to foreign astronomers in 2021.
Fully operational since January, the Fast has become even more valuable since the collapse in early December of the second largest radio telescope in the world, that of Arecibo (305 meters), an American infrastructure installed in Puerto Rico.
“This event is extremely regrettable,” Wang Qiming, head of the Fast’s operations and development center, told AFP during a rare visit to the foreign press. “I went to Arecibo. We drew a lot of inspiration from its structure, which we gradually improved to build our telescope. “
So large that it takes around 20 minutes to go around it, the Fast, up to three times more sensitive than the defunct American installation, was built between 2011 and 2016.
To prevent the waves emitted by humans and their devices (smartphones, cars, light bulbs, computers) from disturbing the measurements, the site is surrounded by a “radio silence” zone with a radius of 5 km. Thousands of villagers have been expropriated.
But what is the Fast for?
Mainly to capture the radio signals emitted by celestial bodies, in particular pulsars (dead stars rotating on themselves).
These waves make it possible, among other things, to reconstruct an image of the objects observed. And the data collected helps astronomers better understand the origins of the universe.
Another objective of the site: “to detect possible extraterrestrial civilizations”, adds Mr. Wang, under the immense parabola made up of 4450 metal panels.
In accordance with international practice for this type of device, the Fast will accept, from 2021, requests from foreign scientists wishing to carry out measurements there.
“Anyone can apply to use any public telescope in the world,” said Sun Jinghai, one of the site’s engineering managers. “There will probably be a lot of demands” with the opening to foreigners.
A committee will discuss the scientific interest of each project and will decide “if it needs to be validated,” says Wang Qiming. “Foreign scientists will be able to come to the site or submit their requests for measurements remotely. In this case, engineers from the Fast will perform them for them and send them the results. “
John Dickey, professor of physics at the University of Tasmania (Australia), is enthusiastic about this new tool.
“I have seen the results achieved by the Fast so far. They are excellent ”, notably with the discovery of more than 200 pulsars. “I would love to use it,” he told AFP.
This astronomer has followed with interest the evolution of the Asian giant in recent decades.
“China is obviously today a world center of scientific research, at the same level as North America or Western Europe,” he said. “Researchers are as forward-thinking, creative and well-organized there as in any advanced country. “
For lack of resources, China was for a long time underdeveloped in science. For 20 years, it has embarked on a great catch-up, to depend less on foreign technologies.
Since then, the country has built the largest TGV network in the world (over 35,000 km), finalized its Beidou geolocation system (competitor of the American GPS) and is in the process of bringing lunar samples back to Earth.
“Today innovation is the watchword everywhere”, underlines Denis Simon, expert on Chinese science policy at Duke University (United States). “More and more decision-making power and intellectual freedom are given to scientists and engineers to explore new ideas and take more risks in research.”