The 500m aperture telescope under construction
The 500m aperture telescope under construction © EPA

China is building the world’s largest radio telescope with a 500m aperture in a project that demonstrates the country’s growing scientific ambitions.

Decades of high-powered growth have given China the means to invest in “prestige” sciences such as astronomy that are normally out of the reach of all but the richest nations. China hopes to land a man on the moon around 2025, matching a feat achieved by the US nearly 60 years earlier.

The design of the 500m aperture spherical radio telescope (Fast) allows it to scan a greater area of the sky than the 300m Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, current holder of the largest telescope crown — although at any one time only 300m of its aperture can be deployed. It will be used to sense hydrogen gas and pulsars, in a search for clues as to the origins of the universe, although it will also have the potential to pick up signs of life outside our solar system.

China is prioritising “innovation” as a national development goal but many initiatives have foundered on the shoals of bureaucracy, corruption and the stifling grip of the Communist party on the academic community. Nonetheless, China is home to many innovative telescope designs, including the LaMost telescope in the forested outskirts of Beijing and an array in arid Xinjiang that use repurposed television antennas.

Nan Rending, chief scientist and general engineer of Fast, told CCTV news the telescope would give China an edge in exploring the vastness of the universe. “The larger aperture will be able to detect fainter objects in space,” he said. “We can learn about the origins, evolution of celestial bodies through the electromagnetic signals received.”

The telescope is built into a natural bowl formed by the distinct “sugarloaf” mountains of Guizhou in southern China, one of the country’s poorest regions. The peaks and dramatic valleys form the backdrops for many ancient Chinese paintings. Yuan Kai, the engineer of the project, said in the same CCTV broadcast that the unique geology actually made constructing the project easier. “If we were to create such a concave on flat land, that would mean removing 30m cubic metres of earth and gravel” he said.

The telescope required as much steel as a quarter of the national stadium in Beijing, according to workers.

Local government officials said the project would perform another valuable, if more terrestrial function — providing the struggling Guizhou region with more tourism revenues. An astronomy theme park has been planned nearby and a local highway expansion has been sped up by five years.

A small village was destroyed to make way for the telescope, and on Tuesday the Xinhua news agency reported that more than 9,000 more people living within 5km of the telescope would be relocated.

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