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10, 9, 8 … China prepares to flick the switch on world’s biggest telescopic eye on the sky

China plans to switch on the world’s largest radio telescope on Sunday as it focuses much of its growing scientific ambitions on unlocking the fundamentals of the universe.

Along with other massive facilities that Beijing plans to build, the telescope, which as a diameter of 500 metres, could entice international researchers to the country as it tries to catch up with the United States in generating discoveries.

Officially named the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the facility in Guizhou will replace the telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory as the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope.

Covering an area roughly the size of 30 soccer fields, it will scour a much bigger swathe of the sky than Arecibo for radio signals – including those possibly sent out by any aliens.

“It will be an extremely good telescope for studying some areas of astronomy, especially for the study of pulsars and the distribution of galaxies in the local universe,” said Donald Campbell, professor of astronomy at Cornell University and former director of the Arecibo Observatory.

Campbell said the telescope would make “significant contributions” to understanding the structure and history of the universe.

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China is yet to announce a research plan for the telescope, but an early-stage study focused on six topics, including galaxy structure and the formation of stars, according to the study’s website.

The National Astronomical Observatories said the FAST team would not take media inquiries before the telescope’s launch on Sunday.

In its push to generate as much basic science as the US by 2020, Beijing has spared no effort in upgrading research facilities.

The new telescope cost 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.4 billion) to build, and an additional 1.8 billion yuan to relocate more than 9,000 residents from its site, state-run Xinhua reported.

The relocation was to make sure that no one lived within 5km of the telescope.

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To protect it from radiation interference, people would not be allowed to use electronic devices, including mobile phones and digital cameras, if they entered the area, China Central Television reported.

“The Chinese government is willing to spend big money on basic research, which is good news for us,” University of Hong Kong scientist Stephen Ng Chi-yung said. “It creates a lot of opportunities for astronomers all over the world.”

Ng, who has been using telescopes in the US and Australia for his astrophysical research, said scientists from Hong Kong and elsewhere might head to China in the future to use its advanced facilities.

James Cordes, also from Cornell, said he had been invited by fellow astronomers in China to use the FAST in his research on pulsars, gravitational waves and fast radio bursts.

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China also plans to build a 110-metre, fully steerable radio telescope in Qitai, in Xinjiang province, which will surpass the US’ Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to become the largest of its kind in the world.

Ng said the steerable radio telescope would be able to survey the part of the sky not covered by the FAST, which cannot be moved because the reflector is too heavy.

The site in Xinjiang was chosen in 2011, and a major research project for its construction was launched in April last year. It is unclear when construction will start. It is unclear when construction will start.

Although the FAST will be one of the most advanced radio telescopes on earth, scientists say they need a wide range of telescopes covering different parts of the sky and radio frequencies to study the universe.

“We do not think of astronomy as a competition,” Campbell said. “It’s the extensive collaboration throughout the world between astronomers using different telescopes. I’m happy to see China is part of the community.”