The country’s Xinhua news agency has said the telescope will be available for service worldwide from April this year. FAST, or the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, is the world’s largest single-dish radio observatory.
It is already operational to scientists within China and has been since January last year.
Its operating body, the National Astronomical Observatories of China, confirmed yesterday that scientists from foreign countries could use it if they wished, though domestic researchers would be given the vast majority – 90 percent – of time slots.
As well as being the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, it is also thought to be the most sensitive, according to Xinhua.
It is located in a natural depression in the ground in southwest China’s Guizhou province.
It is hoped the telescope will be able to help scientists hunt for fast radio bursts – a cosmic phenomenon sometimes associated with potential alien activity.
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are rapid, powerful flashes of radio signals that come from deep space.
They have proved mysterious since the first such signal was detected back in 2007.
Since then others have shown up. One, which was detected by astronomers at the University of Toronto’s CHIME detection project, captured headlines last year.
Doctoral student Dongzi Li found one particular FRB that ‘flashed’ towards Earth for four days on, followed by 12 days off.
The pattern repeated for months. Scientists traced the signal to a galaxy around 500 million light-years away, putting forward a number of theories as to what the source might be.
Avi Loeb, a Harvard astrophysicist, linked the distant FRB to a much closer cosmic object – Proxima Centauri, the star closest to the sun. They suggested a planet orbiting this star could be beaming the signal towards Earth at regular intervals, according to The Atlantic.
However Vikram Ravi, another astronomy professor, was sceptical of this conclusion. He told the news outlet: “The signals are quite broadband, whereas it’s much more efficient to communicate in narrowband.”
He added a signal would likely be “more well defined” if it had an intelligent source.
FAST may also help search for gravitational waves, which are thought to have been detected for the first time back in 2015.
Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein, and their detection was seen as a major achievement for physicists.
According to NASA, these waves are essentially “ripples” in space which are caused when two extremely massive objects, such as black holes, collide or pass near one another.
China’s FAST telescope became operational amid a disappointing year for the Arecibo radio observatory of a similar type based in Puerto Rico.
The huge aging radio telescope was damaged earlier this year when cables snapped, sending the 900-ton observation deck down onto the dish below.