A group of young Chinese technicians have made it their mission to protect the world’s largest radio telescope in southwest China’s Guizhou Province.
The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, also known as FAST, has showcased its remarkable performance since being put into service one year ago. It has continued to observe the skies above, and has served more than 5,200 hours, discovering over 240 pulsars. More than 40 high-level papers have been published based on the telescope’s data. Moreover, the discovery of fast radio bursts by FAST was hailed as one of the 10 remarkable discoveries of 2020 in science journal Nature.
Such impressive achievements could not have been realized without the efforts of a group of young people standing outside of the spotlight. This team contributed to the project while dealing with very harsh conditions, including in a remote location with poor road access, as the FAST facility is situated in the Dawodang depression, a natural karst basin in Pingtang County within the mountainous recesses of Guizhou.
The average age of the team, which consisted of more than 100 members, was 34 years old, while those below 35 years of age accounted for 77 percent of the total.
“The scientific data may help provide answers to the unknown and it’s also fantastic to explore mysteries of the universe in the mountains,” said Huang Menglin, an engineer who is responsible for the operation and maintenance of FAST’s data center.
(1) File photo shows Lei Zheng (L) checking an actuator.
(2) File photo shows Sun Chun processing data in the central control room of China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).
(3) File photo shows Huang Menglin checking equipment at the data center of China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).
(4) Tang Jiajia checks electrical equipment. (People’s Daily/Sun Bin)
(5) Photo shows a panoramic view of China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST). (Photo/People’s Daily)
Huang started working in the center after getting her Master’s degree in computer science in July 2014. Since then, she has devoted herself to guaranteeing the normal operations of the center and its data security.
“My job is to make sure no power outages occur, ensure smooth internet connectivity, and request expanded memory space in advance to ensure uninterrupted and normal observations for FAST,” Huang said, explaining that she never once slackened in her efforts since the observation data is of significant importance for follow-up research.
She would only feel a sense of relief when the project leader was able to finally affirm that all the observation data was accurate. “We contribute to FAST’s results and have to try our best to ensure the sound operation of the telescope,” Huang noted.
Lei Zheng is an engineer responsible for the operation and maintenance of FAST’s 2,225 actuators. The actuators pull on 6,670 tie-down steel cables at the surface that make up 4,450 reflector panels forming the parabola, which provides FAST with the ability to accurately receive electromagnetic waves, said Lei, who is familiar with the technical indicators and functions of all the actuators.
Having completed his undergraduate degree in mechatronic engineering in 2010, Lei landed a job at a foreign company. However, he made a decision that surprised his family: quitting his job and taking part in the construction of the FAST’s active surface, including steel cables and reflector panels.
“I wanted to follow in the steps of my predecessors and make a greater contribution to FAST,” the man explained why he pursued further studies while participating in the telescope’s construction.
In September 2016, Lei became a graduate student of the Chinese Academy of Sciences when the main structure of the FAST facility was completed. He later returned to the site of FAST to take part in the commissioning of the telescope, being mainly responsible for the operation and maintenance of the actuators, starting in July 2017.
“I had to lie down on my belly to repair an actuator, as some actuators were anchored into the rock near a cliff,” Lei said, adding that it took at least two hours to fix an actuator.
The FAST team has also developed new actuators. “The second generation of prototypes has operated for over 500 days without a single malfunction and 670 units have been put into operation. We are testing the third generation of the equipment now,” Lei explained, noting that his current work has continued to enrich his life.
Sun Chun is an engineer in charge of FAST’s measurement and control systems. After graduating in 2012, Sun was responsible for developing the comprehensive wiring design of the telescope’s reflective surface area and the laying of power cables and optical cables. “They serve as a ‘vascular system’, providing electricity and transmitting control signals to FAST,” according to Sun.
She began to work at the FAST site in March 2014 and lived in a prefabricated house for two and a half years there until the project was completed.
During that time, Sun would run back and forth to construction sites every day to supervise the progress of construction, and she often got soaked to the bone due to the nature of her painstaking work.
After the completion of the FAST project, her duties changed several times, varying from maintenance of central control hardware and the commissioning of central control software to astro-observation and arrangements of observation plans, having always worked hard without any complaints.
“As a native resident of Guizhou, I hope that I can play my part in contributing to the scientific and technological development of my hometown and motherland,” Sun said.
Tang Jiajia, a man born after 1990, had once worked in a foreign company and then went on to start his own husbandry business. Now the young man serves as an electrical engineer for the FAST project, having been inspired to walk in the footsteps of Nan Rendong, who had worked as the chief scientist on the team, having been responsible for selecting the site for FAST and overseeing its construction.
Tang began to work at the site in February 2019 and was responsible for guaranteeing the power supply for the telescope. Before September 2019, only a 35 kV power transmission line was available for the telescope’s operation. To ensure the equipment’s normal functioning, the local government decided to add an extra 10 kV line to provide backup power in case of an emergency power outage.
Tang and his colleagues, along with staff members of the local power supply bureau, worked overtime to speed up the construction progress as much as possible. “We started to work from 6 a.m. to 2 or 3 a.m. the next day,” Tang said, noting that it took only five days for them to complete the construction of the power transmission line.