China’s FAST Telescope – Much More than the Search for Extraterrestrials

While the search for intelligent life outside of Earth seems more like the introduction to a sci-fi novel than reality, real live astrophysicists, engineers, and a lot of funding have actually been dedicated to this endeavor since the end of World War II. More recently in 2016, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) was completed. And because a main focus on the hunt for extraterrestrials is encompassed by a search for artificially generated radio signals, powerful radio telescopes like FAST are the best tools for the job.

Located approximately 1,200 miles south of Beijing, this telescope is so large and so robust that it is anticipated to be the most powerful in the world for at least the next decade (maybe two). In fact, exceeding the size of 30 American football fields, FAST is also the biggest filled-aperture radio telescope currently in existence.

And after just five years of construction, the creators of FAST have recently teamed up with Breakthrough Listen, a component of Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives, and other telescopes around the world to further this venture. However, these massive devices are not simply dedicated to the task of detecting signals from intelligent life. FAST, and other telescopes like it, can also search for faint pulsars, which may be difficult, if not impossible, for lower power devices to detect, and will also aid in the mapping of hydrogen gas throughout the universe.

Another interesting byproduct of this research is how FAST can also be used to identify gravitational waves with low frequencies (think relativity/the curvature of spacetime), how it can further aid scientists in developing their understanding of how the universe came to be (it can see farther), and how it can even be used to advance other scientific disciplines. FAST will also utilize the Next Generation Archive System (NGAS), which allows for the storage of data collected by the telescope. This system will maintain over three petabytes of data a year from FAST alone.

The telescope’s location is also critical and comes with it an interesting backstory. The reason that FAST’s location in rural China is so ideal for detecting radio signals, is because it is nearly devoid of radio interference. The reason for this is because a small village was removed from the site before construction and over the course of its development, nearly 10,000 more people were relocated away from the region in order to aid in high quality, interference-free data reception.

Whether or not the hunt for extraterrestrials will ever come to fruition, the research byproducts and other capabilities of FAST and other highly powerful telescopes will undoubtedly aid in developments within the both astrophysics and other sciences. It will be very interesting to experience FAST’s contribution to these advancements.

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