In a remote, mountainous area of Guizhou Province in southwestern China, sheltered from the technological noise of modern civilization, sits what is now the world's largest radio telescope. The mammoth, 500-meter-wide dish, which appears to fill a crater in the mountainside, will be used to monitor radio frequencies that echo through the cosmos, such as those from pulsars and from the churning of whole galaxies. It could even be the place where scientists first catch wind of signals from E.T., reports New Scientist.
Known as the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, the dish is 200 meters wider than its closest comparison, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. That means much clearer reception, and the potential to not only amplify signals that were weak with prior technology, but also the strength to pick up signals that were previously too faint to detect.
“Being bigger means it collects more light,” said Michael Nolan at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “So if you’re looking at a faint signal, it’ll be brighter in the bigger telescope.”
Will it be powerful enough to pick up alien transmissions? That remains to be seen, but the fact that the alien question is on the table is an exciting prospect for E.T. hunters everywhere.
FAST amplifies signals by directing the light it catches into a detection device suspended above the dish. In other words, it casts a wide net with the dish, then concentrates all of that to a single point. Because the telescope is built right into the mountains, the dish can't be rotated like with smaller telescopes. But engineers get around that problem by using mirrored panels that can be directed at different parts of the sky.
“They’re going to have that be a flexible mirror that they can deform to point at the right place,” explained Nolan. “Instead of turning it, they’re just going to squash it to be the right shape.”
The telescope was officially activated on Sept. 25, 2016, so the research is just getting started. Who knows what great discoveries lie ahead?