Photo shows China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, located in Pingtang county, Qiannan Buyi and Miao autonomous prefecture, southwest China’s Guizhou province. (People’s Daily Online/ Deng Gang)
A group of young Chinese astronomers have devoted themselves to deciphering the secrets of the vast universe with the help of China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), also dubbed as the "China Sky Eye."
Located in a deep and round karst depression in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, the FAST is the world's largest single-dish and most sensitive radio telescope. It started formal operations on January 11, 2020. With the FAST, the young scientists have been able to enjoy the prime time of Chinese-style astronomy.
Born in the 1990s, Niu Chenhui once participated in an experimental program for detecting dark energy that was launched by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, having joined the program due to his interest in astronomical instruments.
Working in an astronomical observatory at a high altitude, Niu and his colleagues searched for constellations in the sky. “The stars I saw there were breathtakingly beautiful. Since then, I’ve started to view the starry sky in a different way and developed an interest in astronomy,” he said.
He then continued to explore the stars in Guizhou Province after finishing his PhD in 2019. He joined the team led by Li Di, chief scientist of the telescope and a researcher with the NAOC, where he met some fellow researchers about the same age. Zhang Yongkun, the youngest one on the team and a student of Li, said “I was really interested in the mega project of our country and wanted to take part in it.”
One research subject of the team is Fast Radio Burst (FRB). First spotted in 2007, FRB can release within one millisecond as much energy as that radiated by the sun in about a whole year. And its origins still remain unknown.
Over the following decade, nearly 500 FRBs have been discovered. As most FRBs discovered in the early years did not show evidence of repetition, FRBs were therefore considered to be non-repeating. However, not long ago, while conducting a key interdisciplinary research program, Li’s team discovered the world’s first and only persistently active repeating FRB to date – named FRB20190520B. The result was published in the international academic journal “Nature” on June 9, 2022, Beijing time, with Niu Chenhui being the first author on the paper. This is just one of the over 100 academic papers published since the FAST was put into operation over two years ago.
“The result carries great significance for understanding the surrounding environment of FRBs and their origins. Since the discovery of the first case in 2007, the study of FRBs has been at the forefront of astronomy. Its origins, radiation mechanism and surroundings have been at the top of the agenda,” said Dai Zigao, a professor with the University of Science and Technology of China, at a news conference.
Speaking of his achievement, Niu said “I feel so lucky to stand on the shoulders of giants.” Niu, who spotted four of the six FRBs captured by FAST, always humbly said that he was lucky enough just to be a part of the prime time for the field of astronomy in China. “The most difficult work had been finished by our predecessors,” he said.
In the early days of the construction of the FAST, Li and his colleagues undertook tasks such as welding optical fibers and planting trees in the mountainous regions of Guizhou. The main construction team had lived in makeshift houses for six years without hot water and a toilet. Despite the harsh condition, “all the team members were always in high spirits,” Li recalled. Nan Rendong, chief scientist of the FAST who passed away in September 2017, always said that “FAST is built for the next generation, for younger scientists and our successors.”
The FAST can observe 19 separate spots in the universe simultaneously. The data for each spot accumulated in any hour may add up to almost as much as two terabytes. “Our main task is to process the data,” said Zhang. “Scientific observation time using the FAST will be about 5,000 hours a year, which may accumulate tens of petabytes of data a year. Our team may spend over 1,000 hours processing the data every year.” Most of the data were just “noises” that were observed. FRBs are just like a fleeting blink hidden within that noise.
Feng Yi, another student of Li Di, said there are always some surprising new discoveries in his work. “You never know what new phenomenon awaits you,” he said.
Niu, who has always been asked what is the point after all in researching astronomy and FRBs, finds that his research has been an interesting endeavor in fact and argues that exploration itself is a meaningful cause.
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