China wants to be the first country to find aliens and it’s willing to spend a lot to make it happen.
In an effort to accomplish that goal, the country has just finished almost five years of construction on the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), which is now the world’s biggest radio telescope.
The $180 million project is massive: the telescope stretches 1,600 feet across (about the size of 30 soccer fields) and is composed of over 4,500 individual panels. When it’s finally operational in September, FAST should be capable of detecting radio signals 1,000 light-years away.
“The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life,” Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the telescope, said on Sunday.
This is by no means a national investment in pseudoscience. Scientific investigations into extraterrestrials have taken off over the last decade, thanks in part to the exoplanet discovery boom and the potential of other worlds to possess traits of habitability.
Between bigger endeavors like the Stephen Hawking-led Breakthrough Starshot initiative and conferences attended by astronomers and astrobiologists from around the world, E.T. studies have pushed their way from fringe to the astronomical meddle. China’s new telescope is a natural step towards increasing their already-growing footprint among the scientific world.
The FAST project has not been without its share of problems and controversies. Among them: China chose to evict nearly 10,000 residents inhabiting a 3.1 mile radius of the telescope (located in a mountainous rural part of the Guizhou province) then compensated the villagers with a $1,822 per displaced person. The relocations are supposed to help create a “sound electromagnetic wave environment,” which doesn’t sound like a statement based on sound science. (If China does end up discovering aliens, the irony would surely be lost on the country’s officials.)
Finding aliens is far from the only thing FAST will help investigate. Radio signals are an integral way scientists study the distant objects and phenomena in the universe — you only need a cursory glance of what the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (currently the world’s biggest radio telescope) has found in recent years to understand this.
Come September, perhaps we might finally know whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Well, China might know anyway.