Robots may play a pivotal role in preserving the world’s last giant radio telescope.
Situated in southern China’s mountainous Guizhou province, the 500-metre aperture spherical radio telescope (FAST) became the only one of its type, after Puerto Rico’s Arecibo telescope collapsed in December 2020.
Five intelligent robots have passed preliminary inspections to conduct maintenance work on the gigantic optical instrument, according to a late August report from the Chinese state media outlet, Xinhua.
Located at great altitudes in isolated and hard-to-reach areas to minimize outside interference and optimize visual acuity, ensuring telescopes like FAST and Arecibo remain functional is a demanding task and requires a great deal of risk-taking on behalf of the crews assigned to them.
Constructed in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory is a 305-metre reflector dish telescope built in the depression of a natural sinkhole.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria caused significant structural damage to the site, prompting calls to decommission the project. Arecibo received a lifeline in the form of financial aid from a consortium led by the University of Central Florida a year later.
However, when support cables catastrophically failed in late 2020, the National Science Foundation announced the site would be formally decommissioned and an educational centre would be built in its place.
FAST’s receiving dish is built from thousands of ultra-thin, lightweight aluminium plates that are far too delicate to withstand even the weight of an adult. In order to inspect the dish’s surface, engineers are forced to work suspended above the structure to avoid damaging the sensitive panels.
To avoid replicating the fate of Arecibo, engineers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences believe robots specifically designed to address issues with FAST will be capable of maintaining the sophisticated instrument far more efficiently than its current human crews.
Tao Rui, designer of the intelligent “robocars”, says their weight is distributed evenly, allowing them to operate on the dish’s surface without damaging the sensitive panels.
One of the five robots uses magnetic sensors to monitor and inspect the integrity of the cables on FAST – a particularly important task considering a 280-metre section of the cable network was previously inaccessible to human maintenance crews.
While speaking with Xinhua, a FAST engineer said the incorporation of automated robotic crews solved the dilemma of “high cost, low efficiency” and would allow for faster diagnoses of structural issues and improved maintenance.
The addition of the robot helpers could add as many as 30 extra operational days to scientists and astronomers every year, said Jiang Peng, chief engineer of the FAST observatory.