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China makes big statement with huge, alien-hunting telescope

China's radio telescope, the largest in the world, will aid the scientific community's search for alien life.

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    China's Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in Pingtang county, Guizhou province, China. The radio telescope is the world's largest.
    China Stringer Network/Reuters
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The world’s largest radio telescope China completed Sunday could answer one of mankind’s oldest questions about the cosmos: is there other life out there?

China’s Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, could have the ability to detect alien life, as it searches space for strange objects such as neutral hydrogen, faint pulsars, and low frequency gravitational waves, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency. The telescope, which China hopes is operational by September, will be open to the global scientific community in up to three years.

The magnitude of the $185 million, 500-meter-wide telescope with 4,450 panels attests to the world’s increasing commitment to searching for other life in the galaxy. The discovery that life forms on Earth can survive in the harshest environments, as well as estimates the Milky Way, alone, has thousands of Earth-like planets, has spurred these investments.  

“The telescope is of great significance for humans to explore the universe and extraterrestrial civilizations,” Liu Cixin, a science fiction writer, and winner of the 2015 Hugo science fiction award award for his novel, “The Three Body Problem,” told Xinhua. “I hope scientists can make epoch-making discoveries.”

The telescope’s size manifests its abilities to explore 1,000 light years into space. It was built into a natural karst depression in southwest China’s Guizhou province, protecting it from electromagnetic disruption, according to Time Magazine. And it’s circumference is one-mile long.

The telescope is designed to search for disparities in space. It should be able to survey neutral hydrogen in distant galaxies, and detect faint pulsars, improbably dense, small neutron stars that emit radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation. The first extrasolar planets were found around pulsars. The telescope is expected to also be able to better detect low-frequency gravitational waves.

"A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe. It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm," Nan Rendong, chief scientist of the FAST project with the National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Xinhua.

China next plans to debug the hardware and test it. Once the telescope is operational, the country's scientists will have exclusive access to it over the next two to three years, according to Xinhua. After that, the telescope will be available to the global scientific community, just as the current world’s largest radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, is now.

The $185 million investment by China, coupled with a $100 million investment by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation last year, is a far cry from how the world previously sponsored searches for alien life, as Pete Spotts reported for The Christian Science Monitor in July 2015

Until now, the hunt for signals generated by intelligent life elsewhere in the universe has operated on a shoestring and, at least early on, was widely seen as quixotic.

But evidence on Earth that simple forms of life can thrive in environments hostile to humans, as well as the discovery of thousands of planets orbiting other stars, has added energy to the effort. The discovery of these extrasolar planets has led to estimates that the Milky Way alone holds billions of Earth-mass planets orbiting within their host star's habitable zone – a distance at which liquid water, essential for organic life, can persist on a planet's surface.

That year, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation awarded $100 million to the SETI Institute (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) for a 10-year search using two large radio telescopes to hunt for radio signals, and an optical telescope to search for laser communications. SETI projects previously ran about $2 million a year.  

With all these efforts, the scientific community has little to show or hear from ET. Yet some researchers have said scientists have been looking in the wrong places.

In a study published in the journal Astrobiology in March, researchers suggested scientists look for signals from extraterrestrial life the same way they would search for us — in Earth’s “transit zone,” where the light of the sun starts to dim as an orbiting planet passes by.

In another study published in the Astrophysical Journal in May, researchers suggested looking for alien life around planets with dying stars. The idea behind that is as stars heat up before they die, they could warm frozen planets, supporting alien life.

Others worry about China’s intention for the telescope and the rest of its space program. It has said its space program is for peaceful purposes, but the US State Department has said China’s program could be to “prevent adversaries from using spaced based assets in a crisis,” according to Reuters.

Nevertheless, the telescope is just one step to discovering if the truth about ET is out there.

"Our generation, or maybe the next one after that, has a reasonable chance of finding the answer to this question: Are we alone?" Dan Werthimer, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, told Mr. Spotts for Monitor in July 2015. 

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