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China's Enormous Radio Telescope Is Already Picking Up Mysterious Signals

David Grossman
Photo credit: Xinhua News Agency - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • China is officially launching a giant radio telescope soon, known in English as FAST.
  • FAST, which studies radio waves emanating from space, already discovered two pulsars in 2017, and has found over 100 possible pulsars since.
  • Most recently, FAST has discovered a series of mysterious repeating radio signals known as FRBs. Scientists don't know where they come from, but they suspect a black hole.

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), a project that the Chinese government first began planning in 2008, is now fully operational. By the end of September 2019, the $171 million USD (1.2 billion CNY) FAST project will undergo a last review process, which the Chinese government anticipates will give the go signal to begin studying the skies.

"We fully expect a successful review at the national level, and then we'll transition from being a construction project to a full facility," says Li Di, FAST's chief scientist and leader of the radio astronomy division of the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), in a press statement.

"Once we pass this review, FAST becomes an accepted telescope for exploring the Universe," says Jiang Peng, FAST's chief engineer and deputy director of FAST Operation and Development Center, NAOC. "FAST has been open to Chinese astronomers since April 2019. After the National Construction Acceptance, it will be open to astronomers across the world."

This final review will make sure that FAST meets the specifications first laid out back in 2008. The surface of the radio telescope is made up of 445o triangular panels, 36 feet on each side, which altogether take the shape of a geodesic dome.

While under construction, FAST has already made some discoveries. In 2017 scientists using FAST were able to discover two pulsars—remnants of massive stars. Since then, scientists working with FAST have discovered 130 new pulsar candidates, 93 of which were confirmed with other radio telescopes.

"Our goal is to catch up," Li says. "And eventually have hundreds of new discoveries every year."

That's not all FAST has been finding. Researchers have been observing mysterious Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). These are energetic radio signals that are much louder than pulsars despite being much further away. First discovered in 2007, FRBs are becoming more regular scientific discoveries. Scientists don't know where FRBs come from or their origin story, although they suspect black holes or neutron stars known as magnetars.

After recording pulsars on August 29th, the FAST telescope, which uses the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to study astronomical objects, found a few dozen bursts from what would later be designated as FRB 121102, the first repeating FRB source ever discovered. This particular FRB has been under watch since 2012, but FAST is the first telescope to detect so many bursts in such a short time.

The team is eager to explore the FRB data, as well as more well-known substances like hydrogen.

"We're going to discover curious emissions," Jiang says. "These observations could improve our understanding of high-energy physics, star evolution, and galaxy evolution."

To that end, the team is planning on two major five-year surveys of the sky. The data from those projects will take an estimated 10 years to fully analyze.

"These programs are straight forward, and account for the research we can plan," Li says. "But there's always known unknowns and unknown unknowns that require creativity in planning."

And the scientists are eager to get started.

"We're a beneficiary of vast advancement of infrastructure in both science and technology," Li says. "We are also a contributor. We hope to continue to contribute by making FAST not only a successful construction project, but also something that can be a global landmark in radio astronomy."

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