FAST home county celebrates 2nd birthday with tourist riches

2018-09-26 02:12:44 GMT2018-09-26 10:12:44(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, FAST, is celebrating its second anniversary. 

The world’s largest single-dish radio telescope in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, has been helping scientists understand the universe by receiving and recording pulsars and interstellar signals from extraterrestrial sources.

Engineers and astronomers are always working to improve the telescope, making it see farther into space. Those fortunate enough to visit the telescope find themselves in awe of the giant dish and its abilities.

Since it began trial operations in 2016, FAST has found some 50 stars which bear features similar to pulsars, with 44 confirmed, according to scientists in National Astronomical Observatories of China.

Pulsar observations are used in research on gravitational waves, black holes and to help solve many other questions in physics.

“We are still improving the system,” said Jiang Peng, chief engineer of FAST, during Xinhua’s recent tour of the observatory. “We have already met many goals we set for the telescope.”

The sensitivity of a telescope is the minimum brightness that it can detect. The lower the number, the farther a telescope can see. In FAST’s case, Jiang’s team has cut the number by 20 percent in the last two years, making it arguably the world’s most sensitive telescope. They have also extended its annual observation time from around 700 hours to more than 1,000 hours. More observation time means more data to analyze.

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The telescope will start formal operations in 2019.

“We often say the telescope was almost usable two years ago; now it is usable. Our goal is to make it good to use,” Jiang said.

The giant dish has become a major tourist attraction. “My son is interested in science and aliens,” said Wang Lifa, Wang Jun’s father. “We are here to satisfy his curiosity.”

Wang drove for six hours to get to Kedu township, Pingtang County, around 15km from the telescope and the main stopping off point before the dish itself. The once-impoverished town in the forest now has wide roads, hotels and shops.

In the first half of 2018, Pingtang County received 5.13 million visitors, up 40.6 percent. The tourists brought in 550 million yuan (US$80 million) to the small county, according to the local newspaper Qiannan Daily.

There are so many tourists that there are growing worries that signals from their mobile phones might affect the telescope, so a 30km “silent zone” has been set up, where signals are strictly limited.

To view the telescope, tourists go to within 5km of the FAST. Restrictions there are even tighter: no phones, laptops or cameras. Even the GPS system on the ferry to the site is disabled.

The local government has restricted the number of visitors to the site to 2,000 per day.

“So far, the protection against interference in the core zone has been effective,” said Jiang.

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