Officials in China over the weekend held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the launch of FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope), the world’s largest radio telescope.

Located in a mountainous area in the southwestern province of Guizhou, the massive telescope is designed to explore space and search for extraterrestrial life. The telescope consists of 4,450 panels – each measuring 36 feet long – that reflect interplanetary radio waves to a 30-ton “retina” suspended in the middle of the dish.

Work on the telescope got under way in 2011 and cost the Chinese government roughly $180 million. At 500 meters in diameter, it’s significantly larger than the previous title-holder, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico that measures 305 meters wide.

Some 8,000 locals had to be relocated to make way for the dish which requires radio silence within a five-kilometer radius.

As the Xinhua News Agency notes, FAST’s tasks will also include observation of pulsars and the exploration of interstellar molecules. Sun Caihong, its deputy chief technologist, said the telescope is expected to discover twice the number of pulsars as are currently known and is highly likely to make breakthroughs in the study of gravitational waves and general relativity theory.

For the first two years, the telescope will undergo adjustments and be used for early stage research. After that, however, it’ll be open to scientists worldwide, the publication notes.

Image courtesy Reuters