The world’s largest single-dish radio telescope has been completed in China.
The 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), situated in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, began operating on Sunday. As reported by The New York Times, the dish is made of 4,450 panels and boasts a collecting area of 2.1 million square feet—or about 450 basketball courts.
At 1,640 feet in diameter, it is roughly twice as sensitive as the second-biggest telescope of its kind, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which spans 1,000 feet across.
The $184 million telescope (a price the Times suggests is “unduly modest,” given its massive size) was first proposed in 1994, though construction didn’t begin until 2011. It’s funded by the National Development and Reform Commission and managed by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
President Xi Jinping of China on Sunday congratulated the scientists, engineers, and builders who completed the project, which he said is a “major breakthrough in the original frontiers of science.”
The “Chinese eye in the sky,” as Xi calls it, is expected to help researchers better understand the origins of the universe—and even search for extraterrestrial life, according to state news agency Xinhua.
Don’t expect E.T. to phone home any time soon, though. Citing Douglas Vakoch, president of METI International—an organization promoting interstellar communication—Xinhua said the signal processing capabilities needed to hunt for aliens will be added at a later stage. At that point, FAST can scan outer space for signals that “can’t be created by nature, but only by advanced civilizations,” Vakoch said.
There is a catch, however: As Xinhua reported earlier this year, more than 9,000 villagers were displaced by the government to make way for aliens the telescope’s “environment of electromagnetic waves.”