China has switched on the world's largest radio telescope on Sunday, Sept. 25, but even before its launch, FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope) has already detected signal from space.
The massive dish now reigns in the telescope size game having taken over the place of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which, at 305 meters, is 200 meters smaller than FAST, whose size is equivalent to about 30 soccer fields.
The size of the Chinese telescope matters. Having a field of vision about twice as large as that of the Arecibo Observatory and being 10 times more powerful than the Effelsberg 100-m Radio Telescope in Germany, FAST's potentials at finding an alien civilization will be between five to 10 times faster compared to those of current equipment. The telescope already had a good start in a test scientists ran before its official launch.
The telescope was brought online in July so scientists could conduct trial observations. Researcher Qian Lei, from the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which manages the science project, said that FAST received data from space during the test. The telescope, in particular, received high-quality electromagnetic waves from a pulsar located about 1,351 light-years away.
Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that emit beams of radiation. Scientists use pulsars to study a range of phenomena such as extreme states of matter and cosmic distances as well as to search for planets beyond the solar system. The precise regularity of pulsars' pulses makes them accurate natural clocks, and this means that changes in a pulsar's blinking could indicate that something occurs in the space nearby.
It was through this method that scientists discovered alien planets that orbit these cosmic objects. The first planet that scientists have found beyond the Earth's Solar System was, in fact, orbiting a pulsar. FAST is anticipated to help scientists detect more pulsars.
"At present the variety of pulsars is still limited, and they are usually discovered at the detection limits of the existing facilities. FAST has high-sensitivity and a large sky converge, and can thus potentially find more pulsars," reads the FAST website.
"According to computer simulations, using the multi-beam receiver, FAST could find thousands of new pulsars in a one year survey."
Given its ability to see darker planets and farther into space, FAST can potentially unravel many of the mysteries of the universe. Researchers said that the colossal telescope would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from galaxies and stars and listen for potential signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.