In The Three-Body Problem, China’s best known sci-fi novel, a gigantic radio helps a scientist to contact an alien civilisation. Sadly, the little green men are set on our destruction. But the story hasn’t stopped the Chinese government constructing what will become the world’s largest radio telescope, occupying an area the size of 30 football pitches, in the mountains of southwestern Guizhou province.
A further take on its scale: one of the scientists at the project has claimed (unexpectedly descriptively) that if the telescope was filled with wine, each of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants could fill five bottles from it.
The 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (known as FAST) began construction in 2011 and is due for completion by the end of this year, at which point it will surpass a a similar telescope in Puerto Rico in size and scope.
It will be used to reflect radio signals from distant parts of the universe towards a 30-tonne retina primed to receive them, the China Daily reports.
The project has attracted the attention of the international media following a report by Xinhua that more than 9,000 people within a 5km radius of the telescope are to be relocated.
Nan Rendong, chief scientist at the FAST project, explains: “A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe. It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm.”
The residents are being resettled to reduce some of that white noise, or to create “a sound electromagnetic environment”, as a Guizhou official put it.
(The area’s porous rock is said to drain rainwater quickly, while the telescope’s distance from nearby towns ensures “radio silence”.)
The villagers are being offered compensation of Rmb12,000 (about $1800) and it is the payments that have stirred the majority of comment in the media, with the suggestion that the lowly payouts show that the government values its search for aliens beyond the more pressing realities of life on earth.
Ultimately, FAST could prove a boon for impoversished Guizhou province. The Financial Times reports that an astronomy-oriented theme park is being planned nearby, and plans for the development of a local highway have been brought forward by five years, which will help bring tourism to the area.
A commentator on Bloomberg has also pointed out that the telescope will draw more scientists to the area. As regular WiC readers will know, sea turtles (a slang term for Chinese nationals returning from study or work overseas) are prized as playing an important role in the country’s economic future. The FAST project should provide more impetus for foreign-educated scientists to come home, the local media hopes.
FAST isn’t the only scientific facility that the Chinese are building: construction of a particle accelerator will commence in 2020, designed to be twice the size of the Large Hadron Collider in Cern.
Although the state media has talked excitedly about the project’s search for alien life, the telescope’s main work will be more mundane, gathering data on a wide range of phenomena in space, including black holes and quasars.
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