China Building World’s Largest Radio Telescope for Astronomy and SETI

Deep in the mountains of southwest China’s Guizhou Province, technicians are assembling the world’s largest radio telescope, called FAST, for applications in astronomy, cosmology, and SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

The feasibility studies for FAST have been carried out for 14 years, supported by Chinese and international astronomy communities. The National Development and Reform Commission approved the funding proposal of FAST in 2007. The project is described in detail in a 2011 paper published in International Journal of Modern Physics D, titled “The Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) Project.” A preprint is freely available from arXiv.

The construction crew are building the telescope’s reflector, which will have a diameter of 500 meters – equivalent to 30 football fields – and consist of 4,450 panels. Each panel is an equilateral triangle with sides 11 meters long.

Once complete, FAST will be the world’s largest radio telescope, larger than the one at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, which is 300 meters in diameter.

Hearing Possible Signals From Other Civilizations

FAST Telescope ConstructionThe Arecibo Observatory has been used for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), a controversial discipline that received a double boost last week. In an event at The Royal Society in London, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, with top scientists including Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, announced the lavishly funded Breakthrough Initiatives for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). NASA announced the discovery of a “twin Earth” – Kepler 452b – that orbits a star similar to the sun but 1.5 billion years older.

The Chinese facility will also be used for SETI. “Having a more sensitive telescope, we can receive weaker and more distant radio messages,” said Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society.

It will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe.

The researchers noted that, being the most sensitive single dish radio telescope, FAST will enable astronomers to pursue important research goals, such as surveying the neutral hydrogen in the Milky Way and other galaxies, detecting faint pulsars, looking for the first shining stars, and hearing the possible signals from other civilizations.

“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,” said Nan Rendong, chief scientist of the FAST project with the National Astronomical Observatory, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The area chosen for the construction of FAST has “radio silence” as there are no towns and cities within a 5-kilometer radius and only one county center within 25 kilometers. The images show a simulated image of the finished telescope, and the actual construction site.

It appears that China wants to become a world leader in space, including highly speculative space disciplines like SETI. It’s worth noting that, in the best selling Chinese science fiction trilogy “The Three-Body Problem,” Chinese SETI researchers detect the first signal from an extra-terrestrial civilization.

Images from FAST Project.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.