The World's Largest Radio Telescope sets to Open in China

Interesting Engineering

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is a mega-project designed to search the cosmos for clues about our creation and whether there are any other civilizations out there.

The project began development back in March of 2011. Five and a half years later, it is finally functional. The telescope, as the name would suggest, is a monstrous 500 meters in diameter, able to achieve a zenith angle of 40 degrees. The telescope is incredibly sophisticated, developed with state of the art technology. Recently, engineers fitted the last piece on the telescope, readying it for trials.

The US 100 million dollar project was proposed by astronomers from 10 different countries who collaboratively devised a radio telescope that can scan the cosmos in greater detail than ever. The concept system was first developed in 1994 where scientists conducted experiments regarding the feasibility and functionality of the systems. A later international review conducted in 2006 determined  the telescope and surrounding technology  is viable and is ready for the next phase involving a detailed design.

Construction began promptly, and now, 5.5 years later the project is ready to scan the sky in extreme detail. Because of the sheer size of the telescope, special consideration had to go into the supporting technologies that would reach beyond those of any conventional structure. The size of the structure meant that deformation is inevitable. As a result, the engineers behind the project developed an adaptive cable-net system that allows compensation for small changes. Also, because the telescope is so sensitive to radio signals it was required to build it in a completely remote area shielded from radio interference. Over 7000 cables ensure that the structure will not move. On the wires lies over 4600 reflecting panels, adjustable through a complex system of actuators that were designed to minimize noise.  Surrounding the entire area is a noise reduction wall on the inside of an even larger wind-wall. 

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FASTCompleted Radio Telescope [Image Source: FAST]

A cabin looms over top of the dish which collects the data. Beneath it hangs a massive receiving dish that collects the data. The whole assembly is suspended by massive suspension cables. Six cables are used to position the cabin up over the 500m wide dish. It can be positioned to within an error range of 100mm. The assembly was designed to even withstand vibrations thanks to its dampening control systems. The cabin can be controlled in real-time which was an incredibly difficult task to achieve. Multiple lasers are used to determine the exact position including altitude and angle. Then, a computer makes adjustments to maneuver the 10-meter wide reflector to capture as much data clearly as possible. 

feed The 10-meter-diameter feed cabin that collects incoming data hangs overtop of the massive dish [Image Source: FAST]

"The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life,"

Says Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation.

Perhaps the technology will help further analyze the composition of the Milkyway, detecting distant pulsars, or looking for the oldest stars in existence. As the massive, 500-m wide telescope scans the night sky, maybe it will also hear the signals from other civilization. Whatever discoveries the project entails, it is sure to be magnificent. Scientists will soon begin procedures to begin debugging and testing the systems on the telescope.