In 2016, China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world – gathered its first light. Since then, the telescope has undergone extensive testing and commissioning and officially went online in Jan of 2020. In all that time, it has also been responsible for multiple discoveries, including close to one hundred new pulsars.
According to a recent study by an international team of scientists and led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) suggests that FAST might have another use as well: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)! Building on their collaboration with the non-profit science organization Breakthrough Initiatives, the authors of the study highlight the ways in which FAST could allow for some novel SETI observations.
Relax, its not a space station! And according to the Chinese government, it’s for entirely peaceful purposes. It’s known as the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), a massive array that just finished construction in the southerwestern province of Guizhou, China. Equivalent in size to over 20 football fields joined end to end, it is the world’s largest radio telescope – thus ending the Arecibo Observatory’s 53 year reign.
As part of China’s growing commitment to space exploration, the FAST telescope will spend the coming decades exploring space and assisting in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. And once it commences operations this coming September, the Chinese expect it will remain the global leader in radio astronomy for the next ten or twenty years.
In addition to being larger than the Arecibo Observatory (which measures 305 meters in diameter), the telescope is reportedly 10 times more sensitive than its closest competitor – the steerable 100-meter telescope near Bonn, Germany. What’s more, unlike Arecibo (which has a fixed spherical curvature), FAST is capable of forming a parabolic mirror. That will allow researchers a greater degree of flexibility.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has spent the past five years building the telesccope, to the tune of 1.2-billion-yuan (180 million U.S. dollars). As the deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation, which is overseen by the CAS, Zheng Xiaonian was present at the celebrations marking the completion of the massive telescope.
As he was paraphrased as saying by the Xinhua News Agency: “The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life.” Zheng was also quoted as saying that he expects FAST to be the global leader in radio astronomy for the next 10 to 20 years.
The construction of this array has also been a source of controversy. To protect the telescope from radio interference, Chinese authorities built FAST in Guizhou province’s isolated Dawodang depression, directly into the mountainside. However, to ensure that no magnetic disruptions are nearby, roughly 9,000 people are being removed from their homes and rehoused in the neighboring counties of Pingtang and Luodian.
Li Yuecheng is the secretary-general of the Guizhou Provincial Committee, which is part of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). As he was quoted as saying by the Xinhua News Agency, the move comes with compensation:
“The proposal asked the government to relocate residents within 5 kilometers of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, to create a sound electromagnetic wave environment… Each of the involved residents will get 12,000 yuan (1,838 U.S. dollars) subsidy from the provincial reservoir and eco-migration bureau, and each involved ethnic minority household with housing difficulties will get 10,000 yuan subsidy from the provincial ethnic and religious committee.”
In addition, the construction of this telescope is seen by some as part of a growing desire on behalf of China to press its interests in the geopolitical realm. For instance, in their 2016 Annual Report to Congress, the Department of Defense indicated that China is looking to develop its space capabilities to prevent adversaries from being able to use space-based assets in a crisis. As the report states:
“In parallel with its space program, China continues to develop a variety of counterspace capabilities designed to limit or to prevent the use of space-based assets by the [Peoples’ Liberation Army’s] adversaries during a crisis or conflict… Although China continues to advocate the peaceful use of outer space, the report also noted China would ‘secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.'”
However, for others, FAST is merely the latest step in China’s effort to become a superpower in the all-important domain of space exploration and research. Their other ambitions include mounting a crewed mission to the Moon by 2036 and building a space station (for which work has already begun). In addition, FAST will enable China to take part in another major area of space research, which is the search for extra-terrestrial life.
For decades, countries like the United States have leading this search through efforts like the SETI Institute and the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS). But with the completion of this array, China now has the opportunity to make significant contributions in the hunt for alien intelligence.
In the meantime, the CAS’ scientists will be debugging the telescope and conducting trials in preparation for its activation, come September. Once it is operational, it will assist in other areas of research as well, which will include conducting surveys of neutral hydrogen in the Milky Way and other galaxies, as well as detecting pulsars and gravitational waves.