China on Sunday commissioned the world's largest radio telescope which has a 4,450-panel reflector as large as 30 football pitches, boosting the global hunt for extraterrestrial life.
Hundreds of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts witnessed the official launch of the 500 meter Aperture Spherical Telescope's mission in a karst valley in Pingtang County in southwest China's Guizhou Province as it received its first signals from space.
The telescope is beginning an intensive testing phase. It will now take three years to calibrate the instrument so it can become fully operational.
Work on the nearly 1.2 billion-yuan (Rs 1,201 crore) project started in 2011, 17 years after it was proposed by Chinese astronomers.
The radio telescope has been an ambitious project for the National Astronomical Observatories of China.
The installation of the telescope's main structure -- a 4,450-panel reflector as large as 30 football pitches was built at unique valley in southwest China where over 8,000 people have been evacuated as it requires quiet atmosphere.
Over 600 apartments have been built in two new settlements, about 10 kilometers away to accommodate the displaced people.
The telescope, which is aimed at observing deep space was stated to be most visible project of China's plans to transform into high-tech nation focussing on research in advanced science and technology moving away from cheap manufacturing.
FAST will require radio silence within a 5-kms radius.
With its 500m dish made up of thousands of triangular panels, it dwarfs the former record holder, the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico with a diameter of 305m.
The telescope works by "listening" for radio waves emitted by objects in space. As this structure is so big, it is able to collect signals from the far reaches of the cosmos.
After the construction of the telescope was complete, Prof Peng Bo, deputy project manager of the (FAST) said the instrument was able to detect radio waves from three pulsars, which are rapidly rotating, extremely dense stars. They are a key scientific target for the team.
The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life, Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the telescope said.
The radio telescope will be the global leader for the next 10 to 20 years, Xiaonian said.
"For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations -- and now we have the largest telescope. People can't wait to use it," Peng was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The telescope will eventually become a powerful tool for astronomers. Once fully operational, it can transform understanding of the universe -- to see the first stars and even look for signs of life.
"It's a hugely ambitious project, and it's been carried out very efficiently. It's probably come on stream faster than any of us would have expected for such a complex project," Nan Rendong, the chief scientist of the telescope said.
Rendong added that the telescope would be a "huge boost" to the world's network of telescopes.