Even Radio Telescopes Need a Roomba Sometimes

smart robots help maintain China's FAST telescope

Even gigantic telescopes need a bit of tidying up now and then! China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) now has robo-maids to keep things shipshape.  

This awe-inspiring telescope, nestled in China’s Guizhou province, boasts a dish the size of 30 football fields. Its enormous size makes maintenance a challenge. Cables and pulleys must be regularly checked, sensors replaced, and the 30-ton feed cabin (which collects data from the dish) routinely measured. 

Before robo-maids, human workers scaled the 0.5 km wide dish on their hands and knees, trying not to damage the delicate aluminum reflectors. Balloons were sometimes used to reduce a worker’s pressure on the dish, but this hair-raising solution was risky business.

Now a squadron of droids has taken over, assessed as ready for service after rigorous inspection. These bots nimbly clamber over the dish’s surface, replacing sensors and making spot checks. They’re lighter than humans, so no more reflector damage!

Demand to use this radio giant has skyrocketed since China opened access in 2020. But maintenance downtime limited observation. Enter the robo-maids! Engineers estimate they can extend annual observation by 30 days. 

That’s more pulsars detected and atomic hydrogen mapped. With the tragic 2020 collapse of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo telescope, FAST is more important than ever. Robo-maids to the rescue!

So next time you gaze up at the stars, send thanks to the robotic helpers expanding our view of the cosmos! Even super scientific equipment needs cleaning now and then.

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