Tag Archives: FAST

Adieu to Radio Astronomy at Arecibo

Peter Lobner, Updated 15 January 2021

The Arecibo Observatory (AO) on Puerto Rico has been out of service since 10 August 2020, when a three-inch auxiliary support cable slipped out of its socket and fell onto the fragile radio telescope dish below. Three months later, on 6 November 2020, a second cable associated with the same support tower broke, damaging nearby cables, causing more damage to the reflector dish, and leaving the radio telescope’s support structure in a weakened and uncertain state.

On 19 November 2020, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it has begun planning for decommissioning the 57-year old Arecibo Observatory’s (AO) 1,000-foot (305-meter) radio telescope due to safety concerns after the two support wires broke and seriously damaged the antenna.  You can read NSF News Release 20-010 at the following link: https://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=301674

The 1,000-foot (305-m) dish at Arecibo Observatory in better days, in Spring 2019. Source: AO/University of Central Florida (UCF)
The damaged Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in November 2020.  
Source: NSF
A view from under the damaged dish. 
Source: AO/University of Central Florida (UCF)

The NSF website for AO is at the following link:  https://www.naic.edu/ao/telescope-description

This website includes a timeline summarizing the most important discoveries made by AO since 1967: https://www.naic.edu/ao/legacy-discoveries

Not included in the NSF timeline is the 1974 first-ever broadcast into deep space of a powerful signal that could alert other intelligent life to our technical civilization on Earth. The 1,679 bit “Arecibo Message” was directed toward the globular star cluster M13, which is 22,180 light years away. The message will be in transit for another 22,134 years.

The Arecibo Message. Source:  SETI

You’ll find a description of the Arecibo Message on the SETI website here: https://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/details/arecibo-message

A key capability lost is AO’s planetary radar capability that enabled the large dish to function as a high-resolution, active imaging radar.  You’ll find examples of AO’s radar images of the Moon, planets, Jupiter’s satellites, Saturn’s rings, asteroids and comets on the NSF website here:  https://www.naic.edu/~pradar/radarpage.html

More impressive than the still images were animations created from a sequence of AO radar images, particularly of passing asteroids.  The animations defined the motion of the object as it flew near Earth. As an example, you can watch the following short (1:07 minutes) video, “Big asteroid 1998 OR2 seen in radar imagery ahead of fly-by”:

The US still has a reduced capability for planetary radar imaging with NASA’s Deep-Space Network’s Uplink Array.

AO’s radio telescope dish was the largest in the world until 2016 when China completed its 500-meter (1,640-foot) FAST radio telescope. It looks like the torch was passed just in time.  You’ll find information on FAST here: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/chinas-five-hundred-meter-aperture-spherical-telescope-fast-will-be-the-worlds-largest-radio-telescope/

Arecibo was not part of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration of worldwide radio telescopes that succeeded in imaging the shadow of a black hole in 2019.  You’ll find this story here: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/the-event-horizon-telescope-team-has-produced-the-first-image-showing-the-shadow-of-a-black-hole/

The 19 November 2020 NSF news release stated, “After the telescope decommissioning, NSF would intend to restore operations at assets such as the Arecibo Observatory LIDAR facility — a valuable geospace research tool — as well as at the visitor center and offsite Culebra facility, which analyzes cloud cover and precipitation data.”

Adieu to radio astronomy at Arecibo.

Update 1 December 2020: Arecibo radio telescope collapsed.

NPR reported, “The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has collapsed, after weeks of concern from scientists over the fate of what was once the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope. Arecibo’s 900-ton equipment platform, suspended 500 feet above the dish, fell overnight after the last of its healthy support cables failed to keep it in place. No injuries were reported, according to the National Science Foundation, which oversees the renowned research facility.”

Arecibo after the collapse. Source: Ricardo Arduengo / AFP via Getty Images

Update 8 December 2020: National Science Foundation video shows the moment of collapse.

For more information:

China’s Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) will be the World’s Largest Radio Telescope

Peter Lobner

Updated 20 October 2019

FAST is being built in a remote region of China, in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Completion is planned for September 2016, at which time FAST will replace the similar 305 meter (1,000 ft) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as the world’s largest radio telescope.

China builds World's Largest Radio Telescope

FAST pic 2Source: FAST

Main features of FAST are:

  • The telescope is built in a natural karst depression
  • The 500 meter (1,640 ft) active main reflector is comprised of 4,600 triangular panels
    • directly corrects for spherical aberration
    • allows the telescope to be steered to view the sky within 40 degrees from zenith
  • The focus cabin suspended above the main reflector houses nine feeds for receivers covering a frequency range of 70MHz – 3 GHz
  • In comparison to Arecibo, FAST is expected to have the following performance parameters:
    • 2 times greater sensitivity
    • 5 – 10 times faster surveying speed
    • 2 – 3 times greater sky coverage due to the steering capability of the active main reflector

Observation programs are expected to include the following:

  • Large scale neutral hydrogen survey
    • Will support studies such as dark matter and dark galaxies, large scale structures and dark energy, and galaxy formation and evolution
  • Detect interstellar molecules
    • The receiver bands of FAST are designed to cover OH (hydroxyl radical), CH3OH (methanol) and 12 other molecular lines
  • Survey the transient sky, including pulsar observations
  • Operate as part of the international very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) network

All residents within 3 miles of the new telescope (more than 9,000 people) are being relocated to create an electromagnetic “quiet zone” around the telescope.

You can download a fact sheet on the telescope at the following link:

http://www.cospa.ntu.edu.tw/aappsbulletin/data/19-2/33FAST.pdf

You can download a more detailed paper entitled, “The Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) Project,” which provides details on the telescope design, at the following link:

http://arxiv.org/pdf/1105.3794.pdf

An English language version of the FAST project website appears not to have been maintained since 2010, but can be accessed at the following link:

http://fast.bao.ac.cn/en/FAST.html

 5 July 2016 Update:  FAST construction complete

The Chinese government announced completion of FAST on 4 July 2016.  The project took roughly five years to complete and cost about $180 million.

 22 October 2019 Update:  FAST is operational

FAST Chief Engineer, JIANG Peng, announced that FAST has been open to Chinese astronomers since April 2019. After the National Construction Acceptance in September 2019, it is expected that FAST will be available for use by astronomers from other nations.   You can read more here:

https://www.universetoday.com/143346/chinas-fast-telescope-the-worlds-largest-single-radio-dish-telescope-is-now-fully-operational/

and here:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02790-3