Tourist Activities Cause Interference for World’s Largest Telescope

China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is facing a big problem due to interference from mobile phone usage by tourists. (Image: Screen Shot/ Youtube)
China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is facing a big problem due to interference from mobile phone usage by tourists. (Image: Screen Shot/ Youtube)

China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is the largest telescope in the world. But it’s facing a big problem — too many tourists are clamoring to visit the place and taking photos. As a result, the telescope is said to be facing difficulties in functioning properly because of the Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) generated from the high mobile usage.

The FAST telescope

Located in the Dawodang depression of Pingtang County, construction of the FAST telescope began in 2011. And five years later, in September 2016, construction was completed. Though originally budgeted at around US$100 million, the telescope actually cost around US$175 million to complete.

And since the telescope’s large size makes it extremely sensitive to all types of radio waves, whether they come from mobile phones, spark plugs, satellites, or elsewhere, the government forcibly removed thousands of villagers from surrounding regions in order to ensure its smooth operation.

China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is the largest telescope in the world. (Image: Screen Shot/ Youtube)

China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is the largest telescope in the world. (Image: Screen Shot/ Youtube)

But ironically, the government also built an Astronomy Town close by, with facilities like housing, restaurants, museums, and so on. The idea was that it would attract tourists and boost the economy of the traditionally poor region. Just as calculated, the large telescope did attract tourists. But the problem is that too many tourists started flocking in, affecting the proper operation of the telescope.

As the tourists started clicking selfies and taking too many photos using their smartphones, the RFI emitted by the devices began contaminating the data collected by the telescope. Though the authorities have capped the daily number of visitors to the telescope at 3,000, the constant clicking of cameras is still interfering with the telescope’s efficient functioning.

FAST has employed a team of engineers specifically to deal with the issue of RFI. The team is currently looking at ways for real-time removal of RFI from the data collected by the telescope.

A bigger telescope

China is also said to be building a much bigger radio telescope, a fully steerable one that can be rotated and moved by scientists to aim it at important targets out in space. Earlier this year, the government gave the approval for the project.

Dubbed as the Xingjiang Qitai 110m Radio Telescope (QTT), the radio telescope will be able to trace the origin of almost all the signals it interprets. The telescope will reportedly cover three-fourths of the sky. QTT will also overlap with the FAST telescope between the range of 150 MHz and 3GHz. This will prove very beneficial for researchers.

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The Xingjiang Qitai 110m Radio Telescope (QTT) will be able to trace the origin of almost all the signals it interprets. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

“It’s a quiet space between prominent spectral lines created by hydrogen and hydroxyl, the constituents of water, which is so central to life on Earth. The partially overlapping frequency range of the QTT and FAST means that the detection of a candidate signal by one telescope can be followed up immediately by the other instrument, assuming the data is being analyzed in real time,” CNET quotes an email from Doug Vakoch from METI International.

QTT is scheduled to become operational by 2023. The country is also developing the world’s largest optical telescope in Tibet. And thanks to the combination of FAST, QTT, and the Tibetan telescope, China will essentially be operating some of the biggest, most powerful telescopes in the world very soon.

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