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Pingtang telescope to be centerpiece of astronomy plan

By Cheng Yingqi and yang jun in Guiyang | China Daily | Updated: 2013-05-25 01:39

The world's largest and most sensitive single-aperture radio telescope, which already is under construction in a natural basin in Pingtang county, Guizhou province, is becoming part of a more ambitious business plan.

Local governments plans to invest 4.9 billion yuan ($799 million) to build new towns around the telescope to develop astronomical tourism, China Daily learned during a forum at the 15th Annual Meeting of the China Association for Science and Technology. The meeting will open on Saturday in Guiyang, capital city of Guizhou province.

"The region will become a main astronomical tourism zone worldwide. We will construct an astronomical geopark and research and education center, and build new town houses and tourism highways," said Zhang Xiaoping, deputy director of the Guizhou Development and Reform Commission.

With such investment, Zhang expects the new astronomy tourism towns to bring a total economic return of 30 billion yuan in the coming years, with 60 percent coming directly from tourism.

Zhang said the new towns are expected to rise in three to five years, as the telescope will be in use by then.

The telescope, called Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, was first proposed by astronomers from 10 countries in 1993.

In 2007, after experts visited the natural basin in Guizhou, the site was selected for the construction of FAST, which started in March 2011 with a budget of 667 million yuan, and will be completed in 2016.

"FAST is an astronomical facility. It will not drive up local economic growth directly, but local government plans to develop industries related to tourism, science popularization and ecology protection will make new market opportunities," said Zheng Xiaonian, deputy director of National Astronomical Observatories under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is taking responsibilities for the construction of FAST.

Zheng said the construction of FAST is going smoothly, but considering rising costs, it is "inevitable" that the budget will rise, though he declined to release a specific figure.

"No one has built such a large telescope before, so there is nothing to base this on. From structure to optical and electrical control, we were learning by doing.

"From the engineering perspective, we are gaining a lot of knowledge from the construction of FAST," Zheng said.

Until FAST is complete, the 305-meter-diameter radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in the US territory of Puerto Rico remains the largest telescope of its kind.

"The sensitivity of FAST will be 10 times that of Arecibo's, which means after the completion of FAST, our knowledge of the boundary of the universe will be improved.

"But that does not mean we will not be using the data of foreign observatories any more. Since astronomical research is rather complex, the design of different telescopes is different. We will open FAST to astronomers worldwide," Zheng said.

Richard Gordon Strom, a researcher from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, said that FAST, as a first-class telescope internationally, will attract astronomers from every corner of the world.

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