Humanity’s best bet at detecting aliens is a giant silver Chinese dish the size of 30 football fields—one that simultaneously showcases Beijing’s abilities to deploy cutting-edge technologies and ignore objectors’ rights as it seeks global prominence.
The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in the country’s southwest, which began operations in September and cost 1.2 billion yuan ($180 million) to build, is the world’s largest radio telescope.
Once fully operational, FAST will be able to peer deeper into space than ever before, examining pulsars, dark matter and gravitational waves—and searching for signs of life.
Authorities also hope it will bring tourist dollars to the province of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest regions.
But it comes at the cost of forcibly displacing about 9,000 villagers who called the site in Pingtang county their home.
Many were outraged at being forced to leave the valley surrounded by forested karst hills and hundreds of families are now suing the government, with some cases being heard this week.
Octogenarian Han Jingfu drank pesticide days after being made to sign a relocation contract and died at his front door, neighbours and relatives said.
China built FAST as part of efforts to take on international rivals and raise its embarrassingly low tally of Nobel Prizes, explained Peng Bo, director of China’s National Astronomical Observatories, which oversees the telescope.
The 500-metre-wide (1,640 feet) dish dwarfs its nearest competitor, the US’s Puerto Rico-based Arecibo telescope, which is only 305 metres across.
“We said we had to be a little more daring, because we had to surpass the US no matter what,” Peng said.
“I think we can get a few Nobel prizes out of it. We as Chinese people really want to win them.”
The world’s most populous country and second-largest economy has so far only won one scientific Nobel, awarded last year to chemist Tu Youyou for medicine.
FAST’s receivers are more sensitive than any previous radio telescope, and its pioneering technology can change the shape of the dish to track celestial objects as the Earth rotates.
It could catalogue as many pulsars in a year as had been found in the past 50, Peng said.
But he acknowledged that FAST will be overtaken by the larger Square Kilometre Array telescope in South Africa and Australia, which will be built over the next decade.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense