A Journey to FAST: The Eye of Heaven

Bhusan Kayastha|ChinaNews|Published:2019-01-17 16:50:33

FAST stands for Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope. It is the world’s largest and most sensitive filled-aperture radio telescope located in the Dawodang depression, a natural basin in Pingtang County, Guizhou Province, China. It consists of a fixed 500 m diameter dish constructed in a natural depression in the landscape.

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FAST Observatory at Guizhou Province , China

I am Bhusan Kayastha from Nepal, a PhD student at National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC). I am a CAS-TWAS President’s Fellow at University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS). Every year International College of UCAS (IC-UCAS) organizes Winter School on Frontier and Interdisciplinary Sciences for the international students of UCAS focusing on the pertinence, crossover of subjects and scientific – educational integration. This year, NAOC and FAST Observatory hosted the Winter School from January 10 - 15, 2019 at Pingtang County, Guizhou, China to present students with the cutting-edge theories and research methods concerning astronomy, as well as physical engineering.

As an Astrophysicist, I was already excited about visiting the FAST station when I heard about the news of its opening ceremony on September, 2016.  As soon as this Winter School was announced and I learned that this year it is going to be held at FAST station, it was like a dream come true for me. With great excitement in our hearts I and 41 other students from UCAS along with the teachers landed at the Guiyang International Airport. The weather was cold with the beautiful mountains surrounded by fog. We crossed many mountains and tunnels during our 150km road trip to reach the Pingtang Astronomical Town. It was almost evening when we arrived the Winter School venue. As soon as we entered the gate of our hotel -  Xingchen Tianyuan Hotel , we could feel the astronomical ambience with telescopes and paintings of the solar system in  the lobby. It was such a nice environment deep somewhere in the mountains of Guizhou.

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Group Photo during the Winter School

The Winter School started with the welcome speech from Prof. Dr. Gang Zhao, Legal Representative, Deputy Director General of NAOC, followed by presentations and lectures related to astronomy from professors in the consecutive days. On the second day, during the breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I met some junior high school students on a school tour of FAST observatory from Guangzhou Baiyun Experimental School. They had already been to the FAST site a day before. I had a conversation with  them and I asked them about their feelings  after visiting the FAST station. One of the students, Zhang Yi Ting, who is 13 years old said “We are a group of 23 students and we came here on a 4-day tour from Guangzhou. When I saw the FAST site, it was like a big golf ball surrounded by many towers. We went around the telescope - it was like walking on  a bridge. I feel proud of my country; it is the largest telescope in the world. I want to be an astronomer now and want to use this instrument to find the new stars in the future”.

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Dr. Chen Fang , Director of IC-UCAS during a workshop session of the Winter School

On the same day we had a presentation about the construction and implementation of the observatory from the chief technical officer Wu Jingwen of the FAST observatory. Then we were ready for the most exciting part of the Winter School – the tour of the FAST station. The FAST observatory implements radio silence with 5km radius so we were not allowed to carry any mobile phones with us. While we were walking towards the FAST site, from far away I saw a big tower more than 100 meters tall. As we went nearer, I saw a big white circular dish of 500 meters diameter surrounded by 6 tall towers with a height of more than 100 meters. The circular dish is constructed by joining many small triangular plates with a receiver in the center connected by cables to the six towers around. There is a bridge-like walking path supported by pillars to the ground around the circular dish where visitors can walk. The construction of FAST started in June, 2011 and was completed in September, 2016. It is still going through the final stage of construction and will be completed by September, 2019. As of January,2019 FAST has discovered 74 new pulsars out of which 54 pulsars have been verified through other radio telescopes around the world. Everyone was excited and happy to see the largest radio telescope in the world. We took many pictures and filmed the “New Year Greetings of UCAS” for the upcoming Spring Festival - The Chinese New Year. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and I believe FAST is one of the landmark achievements for the Chinese people in these years.

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Bhusan Kayastha and Sunayana Maben, PhD students from NAOC at FAST site

In the evening, we went to see the light show at the Pingtang Astronomical Town. The whole city was glowing. There were street lamps throughout the town which looked like flying saucers and UFOs. There was music coming from a building which looked like a space station with a lighting system designed as a tree in the middle. There was a Milky Way section near the river with the big bulbs like Saturn and Jupiter. To be in such a nice astronomical ambience in the midst of the mountains nearby the lake gave us a feeling of extreme happiness. The planetarium was in the middle of the Astronomical town; we visited it the next day. It was like visiting a museum introducing different aspects of astronomy like the description of the history of radio astronomy, solar system, evolution of the universe from the big bang, black holes, spaceships, rockets and much more. It was the first time in my life that I saw a movie in a golf-like disc shaped oval screen with 3D effect. Where else on earth will you encounter an astronomical town, a hotel filled with astronomical atmosphere and a telescope on the balcony of every room?. This is the Pingtang Astronomical Town in Guizhou.

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Night view of the Pingtang Astronomical Town

The Winter School ended with a dinner program and special performances from the Puyi ethnic minority group of Guizhou and the participating international students of UCAS. This Winter School was a good platform to learn about astronomy and get a practical feeling of the FAST observatory. The school gave an opportunity to students from different scientific fields and institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to come together and share their ideas. It was a very fruitful Winter School for us and we had the experience of a lifetime. I would like to sincerely thank NAOC, FAST Observatory, UCAS, CAS and all the teachers for providing us with such a wonderful opportunity.

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Students dancing during the performance of Puyi ethnic minority group of Guizhou

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