China's alien-hunting telescope opens for business

The 500-metre-wide Aperture Spherical Telescope will be used to search for extraterrestrial life

Thomas McMullan
26 Sep 2016
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China has officially opened the world’s largest radio telescope, based in the southwestern province of Guizhou.

How large is large? About the size of 30 football pitches. According to The Guardian, a scientist on the project claimed that if the bowl-shaped telescope was to be filled with wine, each of the world's seven billion inhabitants could pour around five bottles into it. Regardless of its ability to hold ridiculous amounts of alcohol, the 500-metre-diameter FAST makes the world’s second-largest radio telescope, Puerto Rico's 300-metre-diameter Arecibo Observatory, look comparatively diminutive.

Qian Lei, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences said: "The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe. 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."

Work on the 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (or FAST) began in 2011, although initial planning for the project started as early as 1994. The final reflector panel – of 4,450 – was put into place back in July, but the telescope became operational yesterday.  

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The 1.2 billion yuan (£135 million) telescope will help the global search for extraterrestrial life. According to Xinhua, the first handful of years will involve adjustments, debugging and early-stage research by Chinese scientists. After this, the telescope will be available to scientists worldwide, to detect pulsars, low-frequency gravitational waves, and amino acids that would be used to pinpoint life on other planets.

"As the world's largest single-aperture telescope located at an extremely radio-quiet site, its scientific impact on astronomy will be extraordinary, and it will certainly revolutionise other areas of the natural sciences," Nan Rendong, chief scientist with the FAST Project, told Xinhua.

FAST will be taken as an achievement for both China’s space programme and the wider scientific community, but the "radio-quiet site" does come with a human cost. More than 9,000 inhabitants living within a 5km radius of FAST are to be relocated, to ensure radio silence for the telescope. Each of those residents will receive 12,000 yuan (£1,275) in compensation from the Chinese government – though state media reports the total relocation budget is £210 million – around £75 million more than the cost of the telescope.

Images: Xinhua

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