A gigantic radio telescope in China is ready to start listening for alien transmissions

China turns a big, shiny ear to the sounds of the cosmos.
China turns a big, shiny ear to the sounds of the cosmos.
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When it comes to picking up the sounds of the cosmos, bigger is definitely better. China’s gigantic new radio telescope, at a whopping 500 meters across (1,640 feet), is the now the largest of its kind in the world. The final, shiny tile of the dish was put in place on Sunday, and China’s National Astronomical Observation agency expects the telescope to begin the process of collecting data in September.

The telescope is set in the top of a mountain in the remote Qiannan region of China’s Guizhou province in order to reduce the potential for interference from cell phones and other devices. Eliminating earthly signal pollution is critical if China wants to fully reap the benefits of its $180 million investment, so China forced over 9,000 people to relocate to accomplish this. There is a remote operating facility for the telescope in Beijing.

The bigger the reflective dish, the fainter the radio signals the antenna can pick up, and China is hoping to pick up some incredibly faint signals, like the signature of gravitational waves interfering with radio signals from distant magnetized stars called pulsars.

China is also hoping the giant telescope, called the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, can find evidence of life on distant planets. Peng Bo, head of the National Astronomical Observation agency, told the Chinese state news agency Xinhua that FAST’s chances of finding evidence of extraterrestrial life ”will be five to 10 times that of current equipment, as it can see farther and darker planets.”

While the telescope would pick up any radio messages sent by faraway civilizations, Chinese scientists hope to use the telescope for the more modest search for amino acids outside our solar system. Amino acids are the basic units that make up proteins, and if they’re found in space then it’s a good indication that some sort of life could be lurking nearby.

Current equipment doing this kind of work includes Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory and Germany’s Max Planck Institute Effelsberg telescope, both of which listen for radio signals from space. Arecibo was previously the largest radio telescope of its kind, stretching 300 meters across a Puerto Rican mountaintop, but once the FAST comes online it will be bumped to the number two spot. Germany’s telescope is only 100 meters across, and even though its antenna dish can be moved to focus on different areas of the night sky, it’s still not as sensitive as the FAST.

Once FAST is fired up in September, scientists will spend two to three years calibrating and adjusting the antenna and receivers. Then the telescope will be open to scientists around the globe, and the information from faraway worlds should start rolling in.