China has begun operating the world's largest radio telescope to help search for extraterrestrial life.

The project, along with the recent launch of China's second space station, demonstrates the country's rising astronomical ambitions and its pursuit of international scientific prestige.

The official Xinhua News Agency said hundreds of astronomers and enthusiasts attended Sunday's launch of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST.

Researchers quoted by state media said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The telescope measuring 500 meters in diameter is nestled in a lush green karst landscape in southern Guizhou province. Construction took five years and cost $180 million. Its size surpasses that of the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.