Mankind’s desire to connect with aliens just became one step closer to reality. China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest radio telescope ever, became operational this week. The massive telescope, built into a valley in Guizhou province in south-west China, is the size of 30 football fields (around 2000,000 square meters), and was completed in five years at a total investment of $180 million.
FAST dethrones the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which stands at a diameter of 305 meters, and will be used to study dark matter, pulsars, gravitational waves, fast radio bursts, and of course, transmissions from alien civilizations.
China Aims For Scientific Glory With FAST
The making of the biggest radio telescope is immensely enlightening:
However, the development is not without controversy. China has purportedly relocated nine to ten thousand residents of the Guizhou province to the nearby counties of Pingtang and Luodian, owing to concerns of magnetic interference.
Whether those people have been duly compensated or not, the authorities have not revealed anything. This is China, though, where national glory precedes everything, so such things are tradition.
In a congratulatory message, Chinese President Xi Jinping termed the new telescope as the Asian nation’s ‘eye in the sky’, and stated that FAST would help China make ‘major advances and breakthroughs at the frontier of science’.
Before going into the details, here is a lowdown on what a radio telescope actually is and what role does it play in Astronomy:
A radio telescope is basically an astronomical instrument that comprises a radio receiver and an antenna system that is used to detect radio-frequency radiation emitted by extraterrestrial sources. Now radio wavelengths are way longer than visible light, so in order to capture any significant data, the radio telescopes have to be quite huge in size. You all must have used dish TV, the most common radio telescope, at some point in your life.
The launch of the new telescope is in line with the mega ambitions of the Chinese government in space- it aims to land a solar-powered rover on Mars by 2020, place a large modular space station in low earth orbit during the same year, and construct space-based solar power satellites for industrial development. It also intends to establish a crewed lunar base and send manned missions to the moon.
Another Giant Step Towards The Search For Alien Life
All radio telescopes reflect radio waves from the cosmos into a central detector. This can, however, create distortion as objects move across the sky due to the Earth’s rotation. FAST has an active surface reflector equipped with 2,225 actuators that can deform a 300-meter section of the dish, which essentially warps the parabolic shape to track objects across the sky. According to Xinhua news agency, FAST has double the sensitivity as Arecibo and is up to 10 times faster than the Effelsberg 100-m Radio Telescope in Germany.
Such a huge telescope will obviously result in a colossal amount of data being generated. To manage this data, FAST uses a data system, dubbed the ‘Next Generation Archive System (NGAS)’ that has been developed at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy (ICRAR) in Perth and the European Southern Observatory. The software will help collect, transport and store nearly three petabytes of information every year from FAST.
‘That’s a hundred thousand 32GB iPods filled every year. Getting that kind of capacity is not too hard anymore but the main challenge is transporting so much data and having the network bandwidth to move it around,’ says Professor Andreas Wicenec, head of International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research’s ICT program and contributor to the design of NGAS.
The tremendous size and capacity has provided a major boost to the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
According to Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observation, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the telescope, ‘the ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe.’
‘In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a radiation beam from a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us,’ added Lei.