China’s FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope) is the largest radio telescope in the world, dwarfing the 1,000-foot (305-meter) Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. FAST was a heavy lift for China, with a final price tag of $ 180 million, and some technical issues that are still being worked out. Now, there are reports that China is having trouble finding someone to oversee the telescope and its operation, and may turn to foreigners to help fill the gap.
The problem is that having a giant radio telescope and having someone available to run the giant radio telescope aren’t the same thing. The South China Morning Post reports that China has not had satisfactory results with its own search, despite the fact that the job pays comparably with Western facilities and comes with eight million yuan in research funding, as well as perks like free housing.
Despite being both 500 meters in diameter and spherical in shape, FAST’s illuminated aperture is neither. The actual usable space is ~300 meters within the 500m dish, and the aperture isn’t spherical, as shown above. It’s illuminated aperture isn’t actually much larger than Arecibo’s (270m versus 300m), though the two telescopes have different capabilities and strengths. They’re both radio telescopes, but they aren’t duplicates or mirror images of one another.
One reason the Chinese government may be having trouble filling the position is how remote the telescope is. FAST was built in the mountains of Guizhou, a relatively poor province with a mostly rural population. Even so, the Chinese government had to relocate 8,000 people to build the telescope and ensure that it would have a radio-free zone to operate in. The geography of Guizhou was critical to the telescope; FAST sits within a natural karst (a depression or sinkhole), which simplified construction.
“Fast is a portal to new discoveries. For an astronomer, running Fast could be the opportunity of a lifetime,” Wang Tinggui, professor of astrophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, told the South China Morning Post.
The SCMP reports that China went looking for candidates abroad because none of its own astronomers had experience running a facility of such size and complexity. It even quotes a human resource official as having said that the position is “currently open to scientists working outside China only.”
The Chinese Government Disagrees
The Chinese government, on the other hand, disagrees with the entire premise of the original story. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has denied that foreigners are being considered for this position or that any recruitment for FAST is going on at all. According to CAS, the leadership position has actually been filled since the telescope launched in July 2016, though it neglected to name the top scientist running the facility.
From China’s perspective, this is likely a matter of national prestige, but I suspect astronomers and scientists in general see it more pragmatically. China’s space and telescope programs have both advanced markedly in recent years, but countries like the US and international organizations like the ESA have decades of experience with some of these types of projects. China’s going to get there, it’s made that clear, but building a bench of experienced scientists who are also capable administrators or project leaders takes time.