The FAST radio astronomy observatory in Guizhou Province, southwest China. Photo: CSIRO FAST under construction in China. Photo: CSIRO
Nearly complete. FAST is expected to be operational at the end of 2016. Photo: CSIRO
Australian technology is going to be at the heart of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, to be commissioned this year in China.
The Five-hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, will dwarf the current largest dish, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
FAST’s 19-beam receiver is being designed and built in Australia by CSIRO engineers working at the organisation’s Astronomy and Space Science unit in Marsfield.
Large radio telescopes are able to look deep into the past of the universe with great sensitivity. Not only will observations at the FAST observatory help us to better understand exotic astronomical phenomena such as pulsars and black holes, but they will also let us peer into the nursery of early galaxy formation in the cosmic web of hydrogen gas that existed before galaxies formed.
“The powerful receiver we’ve created for FAST is the result of our long history developing cutting-edge astronomy technology,” said Douglas Bock, acting director of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science unit.
Dr Bock said that the FAST observatory had four central objectives in radio astronomy.
FAST aims to discover 4000 new pulsars in our galaxy and find the first pulsars in nearby galaxies. A pulsar is an extremely dense, rotating remnant of a large star that has collapsed into what is called a neutron star.
A second objective is to examine radio emissions from exoplanets – planets orbiting other stars. This will pick up natural radio emissions, but also has the potential to detect radio emissions from extra-terrestrial intelligence.
The sensitivity of FAST’s receivers will allow examination of neutral hydrogen clouds in the Milky Way. And a fourth objective will see FAST discover tens of thousands of new galaxies up to six billion light years away – a distance covering about half the age of the universe.
Peter Quinn, who is director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at the University of Western Australia, said this development was the result of long-term co-operation with Chinese astronomers. This collaboration is formalised through the Australian-China Consortium for Astrophysical Research. ACAMAR is an agreement between the Australian Academy of Science and the Chinese Academy of Science.
Professor Quinn said he understands that this collaboration was a subject of discussion between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during Mr Turnbull’s visit to China in April.
The director of the CSIRO, Larry Marshall, said: “Global collaboration is an integral part of CSIRO’s Strategy 2020. … This is a really exciting project and builds on 40 years of CSIRO collaboration with Chinese industry and research organisations.”
Professor Rendong Nan from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said: “FAST will make it possible for us to look for a range of exotic objects like pulsars in our galaxy and possible the first radio pulsar in another galaxy,” he said.
Professor Quinn said that receiver and data technology being developed for use in FAST will also assist the new Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. SKA will be the largest radio telescope in the world. While not having the sensitivity of a single-dish telescope such as FAST, SKA will be a trans-continental telescope with receivers in Australia and South Africa, giving it a very large field of view.
The Arecibo dish is 305 metres in diameter, FAST’s dish is 500 m wide. FAST is being built in Guizhou Province, south-western China.
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