China’s giant radio telescope tunes in to the universe

Largest project of its kind begins operating in Guizhou province, with mission that includes searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2016, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2016, 11:40pm

The world’s largest radio telescope began searching for signals from stars and galaxies and, perhaps, extraterrestrial life on Sunday in a project demonstrating China’s rising ambitions in space and its pursuit of international scientific prestige.

Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects as well as its military-backed space programme, which saw the launch of the country’s second space station earlier this month.

Measuring 500 metres in ­diameter, the radio telescope is nestled in a natural basin within a stunning landscape of lush green karst formations in southern ­Guizhou province. It took five years and US$180 million to complete and surpasses that of the 300 metre Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

10, 9, 8 ... China prepares to flick the switch on world’s biggest telescopic eye on the sky

Xinhua said hundreds of astronomers and enthusiasts watched the launch of the Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in the county of Pingtang.

Researchers quoted by state media said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state broadcaster CCTV.

“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,” Qian said.

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Installation of the 4,450 panel structure, nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, started in 2011 and was completed in July.

The telescope required a radio silence within a 5km radius, ­resulting in the relocation of more than 8,000 people from their homes in eight villages to make way for the facility, state media said. Reports in August said the villagers would be compensated with cash or new homes from a budget of about US$269 million from a poverty relief fund and bank loans.

CCTV reported that during a recent test, the telescope received radio signals from a pulsar that was 1,351 light years from earth.