Giant telescope pulls in tourists

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Since officially starting full operation in January 2020, scientists have identified more than 660 new pulsars using China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST.

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Located in a karst depression in Pingtang County, Guizhou Province, southwest China, FAST is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope. While it has helped scientists with research, the telescope has also benefited residents of remote counties with tourism.

An astronomy-themed cultural park including a planetarium was built in the nearby town of Kedu.


“We want to make the city a base for study tours on astronomy,” said Wei Zhimin, party secretary of Keidu. “Rural tourism is also an asset with farming and local ethnic culture.”

The city has focused on infrastructure and renovation projects, such as road repairs, which have increased convenience and tourism. Wei said that the local people made a living by working in agriculture or elsewhere. The development of tourism has brought more employment opportunities to the city’s residents, such as in restaurants and hotels.

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In 2018, a villager Wang Shunjun opened a restaurant in Kedu. The influx of tourists has boosted the local economy, as they eat and live in the city, he said. He recalled that in the past a breakfast shop had done average business there because the consumers were all local.

“Now many students of different ages come on study tours. Peak tourism occurs during the summer holidays, National Day and Spring Festival holidays. Things have changed rapidly since the FAST project started, and we’re very proud of that.”

Guizhou Pingtang Santian Tourism Development Co., Ltd. said it received 1,384 students in 10 study-tour teams in the first half of 2022.

Students can learn about telescopes and astronomy at the Pingtang International Experience Planetarium. Study tours last from one to five days, including sightseeing and exploring ethnic culture. The company works with travel agencies to promote tourism on short video platforms and organizes science popularization speeches in schools.

“It is important to design courses to meet the diverse demands of students, including increasing interaction,” said Lu Dehua, the company’s deputy general manager.

In May 2017, Ren Chuan’gui, a Chinese teacher at Pingtang Ethnic Middle School, co-founded the school’s astronomy association with a collaborator, the Cause of FAST project.

About 50 students were selected that year from over 600 applicants. The numbers were limited as they had only basic equipment back then. Now students can attend two astronomy classes a week, both theory and practice, which are also open to non-union members. They learn how to install and dismantle an astronomical telescope and engage in camping activities to observe stars in and around the area.

In five years, the association has grown, winning the support of local government and residents. Ren’s work has increased but he said more associates have joined the association. During the Mid-Autumn Festival in September 2021, the association puts up a telescope in the town square, through which locals can observe the Moon.

Zhao Yandi contributed to this story.

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