China completes telescope ahead of schedule
China completed the installation of the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in its southwest Guizhou province, fitting the last of its 4,450 triangular panels into the big dish. The radio telescope, scheduled for launch in September, will now be tested and debugged by scientists according to Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation which built the telescope.
How big is the telescope?
The Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) has a reflector the size of 30 football fields. It dwarfs the world's second largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is 300 meters in diameter. The FAST will also be 10 times more sensitive than the Effelsberg 100-m Radio Telescope in Germany, and can be remotely controlled from Beijing 2,000 kilometers away.
A better estimate of the FAST's size
The FAST's dish is so big that one of the scientists behind the project claimed that if the telescope's dish was filled with wine, there would be enough to distribute five bottles of wine to each of Earth's 7 billion residents.
9,000 residents relocated for construction
The Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) cost ¥1.2 billion or $180 million, and took five years to construct. 9,110 residents in the Guizhou province had to be relocated for its construction, with each resident receiving $1,800 as compensation from the government. The telescope is expected to be the global leader in space exploration for the next two decades or so.
What will the FAST be used for?
The FAST will be fine-tuned for major astronomical discoveries such as quasars, pulsars and microwave background radiation. FAST's ability to detect faint pulsars will increase the chances of detecting low frequency gravitational waves. Furthermore, the chance to discover the basic building blocks of life in space will be 5-10 times higher than that of current equipment increasing the chances of finding extraterrestrial life.
What are the chances of alien life existing?
Astronomers estimate that the Milky Way alone contains at least 50 billion exoplanets, 500 million of which lie in the "habitable zone". Extrapolating these numbers to the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe, it implies that there are 50,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets potentially capable of supporting life.