China has just completed work on the largest space telescope in the world, a dish design that almost doubles the size of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. And when it goes operational in September, the massive telescope — FAST (Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope) — will not only be able to pierce the far reaches of space for greater detection for astronomical studies, but it will also be used in the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligences and alien life.
As the Telegraph reported July 4, the final panel on the gigantic 4,450-panel space telescope was emplaced this past weekend, completing the construction of the device that took five years and cost $180 million (£135 million) to build. Chinese government official Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astronomical Observation under the Chinese Academy Sciences, explained the mission of the Five-hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) to the Xinhua news agency.
“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.”
To put the new space telescope in perspective, it stretches 500 meters (over 1,640 feet), nearly doubling the size of the Arecibo Observatory, which is a giant 305 meters (1000 feet) wide itself. Xinhua noted that the new space telescope was also 10 times more sensitive than Germany’s 100-meter-wide steerable telescope.
To give the massive telescope clearance for less outside electronic or radio noise interference, more than 9,000 people living in a five-kilometer (3.1 miles) radius from the space telescope will be relocated. Radio and electronic noise can produce problems in the gathered data. In Greenbrier County, West Virginia, a perimeter around the famed Greenbank Observatory is kept to ensure signal detection clarity/purity.
Besides joining in scouring the universe for signs of alien life, FAST will also use its heightened sensitivity to probe further into deep space than any other active telescope. As Sputnik News reports, the largest telescope will be able to gather more of the radio waves, which vary in length from a millimeter to over a hundred kilometers, being produced from the furthest depths of space.
FAST will join with organizations like SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) and the Breakthrough Listen in searching for signs of alien life in the universe. SETI has been on the hunt for extraterrestrials since astronomer Frank Drake (of the Drake Equation fame) began the first search with a 26-meter telescope in Greenbank, West Virginia, in 1960. Now, through the SETI Institute (founded in 1984), large arrays of telescopes constantly search space for extraterrestrials. According to Space.com, Breakthrough Listen announced in July 2015 a 10-year mission to study the 1 million stars in the Milky Way closest to Earth, not to mention the 100 closest galaxies, for signs of alien life.
In its more traditional scientific mission, China’s new space telescope will attempt to gather information on the formative years of the universe, searching for ancient signals of hydrogen in deep space. The telescope will also be used in the search for new stars, including the pulsar, a pulsating radio star that emits an intense beam of electromagnetic radiation.
The massive space telescope is the second major scientific accomplishment announced by China in the past two weeks. In June, China announced that the country now had the fastest supercomputer in the world, one that boasted computational speeds three times faster than the prevailing fastest computer. According to Bloomberg, the Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer, which is located at the state-funded Chinese Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, is an original construct using unique architecture and Chinese processors.
Once the FAST space telescope goes online in September, it will go through an early-stage process, a sort-of “dry run” to work out all the kinks, and scientists can run through trials, making adjustments as necessary. Afterward, all data collected from the world’s largest telescope within that time will be shared with scientists worldwide.
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