Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer!
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I can't believe it. I've officially laid eyes on one of the coolest pieces of homegrown technology China has to offer: Guizhou's Five-Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, known as FAST. Ever heard of it?
First, let's get to the facts: China's FAST telescope, dubbed the "Eye of Heaven", is the largest radio telescope in the world at a whopping 500-meters in diameter.
It's purpose? Pulsar observations, interstellar molecule detection, black hole emissions, and yada yada yada. Truth be told, I only cared about one thing: It's amongst the strongest tools we have on this planet in the search for extra-terrestrial life. And with that, FAST telescope here I come!
Journey to FAST
I landed in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou, on April 2nd. Accompanied by a friend, we'd hit the Sheraton Guiyang Hotel, book tickets at 280RMB a pop with a travel agency, and depart the next morning at 8am sharp via shuttle bus directly to the FAST Tourist Reception Center in Pingtang County. Boom.
The Tourist Reception Center was a great introduction to the Five-Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope for two reasons: First, it was just cool to look at, and it only made sense that the world's largest radio telescope had some sort of cosmic theme. The ceiling was coated with a rich navy blue paint that contained pictures of stars, planets, and asteroids.
And second? I had the chance to learn how the FAST dish worked, from time-lapse visuals to ... well, first-hand experience. Let's just say that the rumors were true: FAST requires absolute radio silence within a 5km radius. What does that mean? That meant there was a zero-tolerance policy against taking mobile phones, digital cameras, or tablets to the site—devastating news for a travel blogger like myself—and there was a security check to make sure guests strictly adhered to the rules. Yeah, don't even think about sneaking in any of them.
What's more, tourists were prohibited from taking lighters, bringing keys, and even wearing watches. Watches for Christ's sake! I guess it was back to the Stone Age where you'd actually have to guess what time it was by looking up at the sun!
There was another shuttle bus that took us up to the base of the FAST dish wherein lied ... wait for it... another security check point. Man, these guys didn't play around! Additionally, there was one special surprise: a table full of about 10 conventional Nikon cameras available for rent. HAL-LE-LUJAH! HAL-LE-LUJAH! You see the golden light shine down through the clouds too?
Again, you can not take digital cameras to the Five-Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope. Those cameras used film rolls rather than memory cards. They could not record video, use bluetooth, or connect to the internet. All I had to do was present my ID, place down a 500RMB deposit—your only charged 150RMB after safe return—and I was given a film roll that allowed for 36 pictures. B-o-o-y-a-h.
And so therein lied the next challenge of getting to the FAST dish: walking up 789 stairs to reach the top of a mountain. Seven-hundred-eighty-nine exactly, no kidding. But all that didn't even matter once we reached the top.
And there it was, finally. China's 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope. White, silver, thirty soccer fields large, and shinning brilliantly against one of the most breathtaking karst hill backdrops I'd ever seen.
I remembered reading from an article beforehand that the FAST project had taken 5 years of construction--2011 to 2016--before becoming active, and it's frame was covered with a reported 4450 aluminum, triangular-shaped active surface panels that could observe wavelengths from 10cm to 4.3 cm.
My friend didn't care; she just laughed and called it a "giant hot-pot". I on the other hand couldn't resist fondling over its technical prowess and ability to peer out into the farthest depths of the universe. With FAST up and running, would China be the first to discover alien life? Would they be the champions of some major mind-bending discovery about the universe before the US?
Ok, so I didn't really delve that deep into these theoretical questions. What I did manage to do, however, was take lots of photos of the dish, the sprawling landscape, and people tourists having fun.
But the party didn't stop there. We eventually made our way back to the FAST Tourist Reception Center and landed at the Pingtang International Experience Planetarium--the first museum I'd visit in China that was solely dedicated to space.
It was a great addition to site. Documentaries, interactive displays, facts about planets, our solar system, and black holes--it's just too bad everything was in Chinese! And I mean EVERYTHING!
And well, that was it. We'd leave the FAST dish in Pingtang at 4pm and arrive back in Guiyang by 6:30pm. My friend and I would cap off the night with some mouthwatering fish and debating aboutb whether aliens really exist. Hey, I guess a trip to the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope will do that to ya'. What an incredible adventure!
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