China to open up Fast telescope to foreign scientists – including those searching for alien life

Stephen Chen
·4-min read

Fast, the world’s largest radio telescope, will open to non-Chinese scientists later this year for a wide range of projects, including the search for alien civilisations.

Researchers interested in using the 500 metre (640 feet) wide telescope in the southwestern region of Guizhou can submit their proposals to the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing starting from April 1.

As demand is expected to be huge, an expert panel will help screen the proposals for the most promising candidates. Foreign scientists may be able to start using the facilities by August, said Jiang Peng, the telescope’s chief engineer.

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“This year we will allocate about 10 per cent of the total observation time slots to requests from overseas,” he told the official Xinhua news agency.

China is now the only country in the world that operates a giant telescope after the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico collapsed at the end of last year as a result of hurricanes and the failure to maintain it properly.

The Fast telescope – or Five-hundred-metre aperture spherical radio telescope – is so large that it can hold enough water to fill a bottle for every human being four times over. The telescope’s extreme size means it can intercept signals that other radio telescopes will miss – possibly including radio waves generated by extraterrestrials.

China has already quietly pointed Fast at some exoplanets near our solar system that may be able to support life, according to Professor Li Di, a senior scientist working at the site.

In one experiment conducted in 2019, the telescope concentrated on GJ273b, a planet about three times the size of Earth and 12 light years away.

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The observation lasted only about five minutes, but the scientists made an important discovery. By observing how waves from the exoplanet’s parent star bounced off it, they calculated that if an alien civilisation built a 70-gigawatt antenna and sent signals to the Earth it could be detected by Fast, and vice versa.

The Fast telescope is “well positioned to conduct sensitive searches for radio emissions indicative of exo-intelligence,” said Li in a paper published in Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics in March last year.

The Chinese team also plans to use Fast to search for more distant alien life forms that may be using technology that is far superior to ours.

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They believe a really advanced civilisation could directly harness energy from a star system or even an entire galaxy, possibly even manipulating the brightness of stars to use them as beacons for interstellar travel.

The telescope will check for stars and galaxies of interest while listening out for signals from thousands of exoplanets, Li and colleagues said.

But if Fast does detect something, a problem may occur, according to some astronomers. The collapse of the Arecibo Observatory means that some signals may be too weak for any other telescopes to detect and verify the discovery.

Fast can detect signals no other telescope on Earth can. Photo: Xinhua
Fast can detect signals no other telescope on Earth can. Photo: Xinhua

Previously some possible alien signals have turned out to be the result of hardware glitches or electromagnetic disturbances on earth.

The Fast telescope operates at a considerable cost, although no precise figures are available. To study a new subject, it will need to fire up more than 2,000 hydraulic pumps to turn the reflective panels towards the target. A massive amount of data will also need to be stored and analysed by supercomputers.

It remains unclear whether China will charge the foreign scientists for the service and how much.

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Scientific collaboration between China and the West, especially the United States, has been disrupted by political tensions between the sides in recent years, and some Chinese astronomers hope the Fast telescope can become a new platform for international cooperation.

The Fast team has also been collaborating with Breakthrough Listen, a US$100-million project launched by the Israeli-Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, in the search for intelligent life forms.

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