China's 'eye of heaven' may be poked by tourist horde

WINDOW TO THE UNIVERSE: The "eye of heaven" refers to the 500m Aperture Spherical Telescope (Fast) in Guizhou. Its strict environmental requirements, like a low noise level, might be compromised by its many visitors.


    Oct 10, 2016

    China's 'eye of heaven' may be poked by tourist horde

    "THE eye of heaven is open for tourists now!"

    The news quickly spread across the Internet.

    The "eye of heaven" refers to the 500m Aperture Spherical Telescope (or Fast), the largest in the world, used to gaze into the depths of the universe.

    Parts of the Fast zone, in Pingtang county of south-west China's Guizhou province, were opened to tourists in late September.

    By paying 368 yuan (S$76) for a ticket, tourists can visit certain parts of the observatory.

    And as expected, 140,000 people visited the Fast zone during the just-concluded week-long National Day holiday.

    Opening parts of the Fast zone to tourists has its advantages. For one thing, it can generate some income.

    Fast's telescope arrays alone cost 700 million yuan.

    Its control centre, built with carefully selected materials, is decorated with nothing but wood panels to minimise the influence of external electromagnetic waves.

    And a huge sum will be needed every year for maintenance of the observatory.

    Moreover, Fast will not make any immediate returns and its team must apply for state funding which involves complicated procedures.

    So the ticket revenue will be a welcome source of income (even if small).

    As the largest radio telescope in the world, Fast is already well known among Chinese astronomers and astronomy fans. The partial opening of the zone will give other people an opportunity to experience it first-hand.

    According to reports, the parts open to tourists include an astronomy experience museum, in which people can feel as if they are among the stars, thanks to 3D simulation technology, and an area where people can peer into the sky through optical telescopes.

    The partial opening of the Fast zone seems to be a win-win move at present.

    It will not only help generate some revenue to support scientific research but also help infuse the love for science among the youth.

    But there are some problems. Fast has rigid environmental requirements.

    Reports say that every light bulb in the control centre is specially manufactured and has to pass dozens of tests before being installed.

    That is why those entering the tourist area are not allowed to carry, let alone use, electronic devices such as mobile phones.

    Besides, one of the reasons a mountainous area was chosen as the location for Fast is the low population density.

    Both the device and scientists need silent surroundings.

    With the Fast zone being partly opened and many people visiting, some local residents are building new hotels in the area.

    As a result, the peaceful, serene place could soon become a tourist hub.

    The Fast observatory employees and tourists must be careful not to break the noise limits and other rules.

    But there are no guarantees that the surroundings will not be disturbed.

    For example, the original rule is to limit the number of tourists to within 2,000 a day.

    But the actual number of tourists on Oct 1 exceeded 10,000.

    If the upper limit of tourist number is broken, there is reason to worry that other rules, which are aimed at protecting Fast from external disturbance, might be breached too.

    How to minimise the disturbance will be a major challenge for the Fast zone administrative staff and government authorities.