If the human race is to ever stumble upon genuine signs of alien life, it could be thanks to a ginormous telescope the Chinese government just switched on.
Since 2011, China has been steadily working away on the world’s largest radio telescope, known as FAST (Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope).
The project is tucked away in the forest of Guizhou province in China’s southwest and began searching for signals from stars and galaxies and, perhaps, extraterrestrial life on Sunday.
The project is another sign of China’s rising ambition in space exploration as the Asian power looks to bolster its global scientific prestige.
The now second largest telescope in the world is the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico but China’s new world-beater, with a 500m-diameter, dwarfs its Caribbean counterpart which boasts a 300m diameter.
Nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, China’s telescope has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and five to 10 times the surveying speed, according to Chinese officials.
The telescope cost upwards of $230 million and took more than five years to build — a process which was made possible by engineers from Australia’s top scientific body the CSIRO who collaborated on the project.
Most radio telescopes use receivers that can only see one piece of sky at a time, but CSIRO engineers designed receivers with many separate, simultaneous beams.
The technological innovation allows FAST to search a much larger portion of the sky for faint and hidden galaxies.
Now that it has finally be turned on, the telescope will scan the cosmos and 4450 movable panels will be used to reflect radio signals from distant parts of the universe towards a 30-tonne retina hanging above the dish.
According to a report by The Guardian, one of the scientists behind the project offered an interesting fact to help people imagine the enormous size of the dish: If the Telescope’s bowl was full of wine, each of the world’s seven billion people could fill five bottles, he said.
Researchers quoted by state media said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state broadcaster CCTV.
“In theory, if there is civilisation in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us.”
The huge dish requires radio silence within a 5km radius on the ground meaning that 9000 residents from eight surrounding villages were forced from their homes and required to relocate. But for a government keen to flex its scientific muscle, such problems are of little concern. Those forced to relocate due to the presence of the telescope were reported to receive just 12,000 yuan ($A2559) in compensation for the inconvenience.
According to its operators, the world’s newest and largest telescope is in good working order. Chinese state media reported that during a recent test, the dish received radio signals from a pulsar that was 1351 light-years from Earth.
Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects including its military-backed space program, which saw the launch of China’s second space station earlier this month — which the country now says is out on control.
Another government-backed program recently carried out by China in collaboration with Austrian researchers saw China launch the world’s first quantum-enabled satellite in what the government hopes will be the first step towards creating a global communication network completely impervious to being hacked.
— With AP