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China has a giant radio telescope and no one to run it

China’s effort to become a major player in the astronomy and space exploration field has run up against a strange problem.

China has built a staggeringly large instrument in the remote southern, mountainous region of the country called the Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST. The telescope measures nearly twice as large as the closest comparable facility in the world, the US-operated Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Radio telescopes use a large, parabolic dish to collect radio waves from distant sources, such as pulsars and black holes—or even alien civilizations.

According to the South China Morning Post, the country is looking for a foreigner to run the observatory because no Chinese astronomer has the experience of running a facility of such size and complexity. The Chinese Academy of Sciences began advertising the position in western journals and job postings in May, but so far there have been no qualified applicants.

Part of the problem here is that it appears the telescope was built by order of the Chinese government, not Chinese astronomers. It would have been better for China to have built something its own astronomers were qualified to run. Instead, they built something to impress the world, and now can’t find a way to use it.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • LocalFluff

    It couldn’t be more perfect. The Chinese produce anything we do in much greater quantity and scale, but don’t consume any of it themselves. It’s like being the queen among and in the den of a bumblebee swarm, being offered honey as a gift relentlessly. They have the largest launcher and the largest telescope and they now wonder what to do with it (as with some empty cities and roads to nowhere they’ve also built). Chinese are traders. They are trapped by this planned economy remnant they still drag around with from history. Until that Xi falls over in the shower or something and Chinese are finally allowed to be Chinese.

  • I suppose in the interim they could monetize it as The World’s Largest Wok.

  • D.K. Williams

    Reminds me of the ghost cities also in Red China.

  • Sayomara

    Of the branches of astronomy. Radio astronomy is not the sexy place to work. Having worked in an astronomy department almost none of the grad students in my department were interest in radio. Even though the department have a strong history in radio astronomy.

    Take that with issues of range, interference and frankly I don’t think a lot of people feel there is much more to be found in the radio range. Maybe that will change with better tech and larger instruments but its one of the weakest areas of the astronomy and I don’t see that turning around anytime soon

  • LocalFluff

    I’m surprised to hear that! Considering ALMA making the most fabulous observations with records by far in resolution of black holes, neutron stars, protoplanetary disks. And considering the mystery of fast radio bursts. And of course with SETI lurking as the potentially greatest breakthrough of human history. And the very long baseline interferometer including the world’s largest space telescope orbiting out to a Lunar distance. I suppose the 500 meter telescope could do some radar studies of near Earth asteroids too, and maybe be helpful with deep space communication and orbiting debris detection.

    Radio is the big thing in astronomy, as far as I understand it. Competing only with infrared. X-ray and higher energy observatories are what needs better instruments. The ridiculous gravity waves observatory and the cubic kilometer in Antarctic ice that works as a neutrino observatory, that stuff is on the edge and probably harder for a newly graduated to make any substantial contribution to. It took Kip Thorne his entire academic life to do it, knowing very well that it might be impossible or that the theoretical prediction was wrong, and he’s Kip Thorne! Compare that with the simplicity of radio astronomy that was discovered by accident, believed to be some terrestrial noise like pigeon discards on the communications antenna.

  • LocalFluff

    And SKA! Something Kinda Awesome (or Square Kilometer Array) that is so called because it’s total disk area will be larger than a square kilometer. It’s so big that it is built in both Australia and Africa. And the same photon will be caught at both places at the same time, as quantum physics has it, pinpointing its direction perfectly. SKA is said to produce more data than what is turned over on the internet when it turns on. Radio also means big data, which philosophically could be (over) interpreted as a threat to the very scientific method. And the first interstellar mission, the telescope to one day go out to 600 or so AU to use the Sun as a gravitational lens, will use radio AFAIK. Radio is a hot topic about cool radiation.

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