07Oct2018

China Built World’s Largest Telescope. Then Came the Tourists

Recently astronomers traveled  to Pingtang Astronomy Town for a conference hosted by scientists from the world’s largest telescope. It was a new designation: China’s Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope.

FAST’s dish, nestled into a depression, is made of thousands of triangular panels. VCG/Getty Images

Nick named FAST, it had been completed just a year before, in September 2016. The 40 or so other foreign astronomers had come to China to collaborate on the superlative-snatching instrument. The telescope itself, nestled in a natural enclosure called a karst depression looks like a golf ball.

As the group got closer, they saw a red carpet unrolled into the entrance of the giant white orb, guarded by iridescent dragons on an inflatable arch. Inside, they buckled up in rows of molded yellow plastic chairs. The lights dimmed. It was an IMAX movie—a cartoon, with an animated narrator. Not the likeness of a person but … what was it? A soup bowl?

It was a clip-art version of the gargantuan telescope itself. Small cartoon FAST flew around big cartoon FAST, describing the monumental feat of engineering just over yonder: a giant geodesic dome shaped out of 4,450 triangular panels, above which receivers collect radio waves from astronomical objects.

China spent $180 million to create the telescope, which officials have repeatedly said will make the country the global leader in radio astronomy. But the local government also spent several times that on this nearby Astronomy Town—hotels, housing, a vineyard, a museum, a playground, classy restaurants, all those themed light fixtures. The government hopes that promoting their scope in this way will encourage tourists and new residents to gravitate to the historically poor Guizhou province.

It is, in some sense, an experiment into whether this type of science and economic development can coexist. Which is strange, because normally, they purposefully don’t. The point of radio telescopes is to sense radio waves from space—gas clouds, galaxies, quasars. By the time those celestial objects’ emissions reach Earth, they’ve dimmed to near-nothingness, so astronomers build these gigantic dishes to pick up the faint signals.

But their size makes them particularly sensitive to all radio waves, including those from cell phones, satellites, radar systems, spark plugs, microwaves, Wi-Fi, short circuits, and basically anything else that uses electricity or communicates. Protection against radio-frequency interference, or RFI, is why scientists put their radio telescopes in remote locations: the mountains of West Virginia, the deserts of Chile, the way-outback of Australia.

FAST’s site used to be remote like that. The country even forcibly relocated thousands of villagers who lived nearby, so their modern trappings wouldn’t interfere with the new prized instrument.

But then, paradoxically, the government built—just a few miles from the displaced villagers’ demolished houses—this astronomy town. It also plans to increase the permanent population by hundreds of thousands. That’s a lot of cell phones, each of which persistently emits radio waves with around 1 watt of power. By the time certain deep-space emissions reach Earth, their power often comes with 24+ zeroes in front: 0.0000000000000000000000001 watts.

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