An aerial view of the FAST. Photo: Xinhua
An aerial view of the FAST. Photo: Xinhua

The world’s largest filled-aperture radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, has been pulling in tourists and astronomy buffs to a once-out-of-the-way geological depression in southwestern China’s Guizhou province since it achieved “first light” (astronomy jargon for first use) in September 2016.

Visitors are amazed by the gigantic, futuristic iron-bowl-like telescope reflectors, made of 4,600 triangular aluminum panels that sit in a natural-basin cradle, in stark contrast to a terrain of lush greenery.

Chinese scientists are now considering setting up a cluster of smaller radio telescopes surrounding the FAST to increase array resolution, Xinhua reports.

Tourists flock to the dish-shaped giant telescope located in remote Guizhou province. The FAST is built to look for and analyze interstellar radio signals. Photo: Handout

The National Astronomical Observatory of China may add two to 10 radio telescopes measuring 30 meters in diameter in close vicinity of the FAST to boost its eyesight and sensitivity to look for pulsars and interstellar molecules, which may in turn yield clues about how the universe first formed, and possibly evidence of extraterrestrial life as well.

But the national observatory, under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has rebutted suggestions that such additions of supporting telescopes would be a remedy for the FAST’s flawed design and construction.

The enhanced resolution of the array will be around 100 times the current level.

Additional telescopes are also part of the FAST’s involvement in the global hunt for aliens in a multi-institutional collaboration led by the University of California, Berkeley, which listens to and analyzes evidence of technologically produced radio emissions.

There have also been reports that despite having a cutting-edge device that can enable scientists to detect signals from as far away as 1,000 light-years, China is facing a drain of talent able to operate a complex facility of this scale and may eventually have to recruit astronomers and technicians from overseas.

The South China Morning Post reports that China has not had satisfactory results from its search for personnel, despite the fact that the job of operating the FAST pays comparably with Western facilities and comes with 8 million yuan (US$1.25 million) in research funding, as well as perks such as free housing.