The South by Southwest festival, which takes a closer look at how technology could transform every aspect of our lives, is drawing to a close.
Why China might make first contact with aliens
To join the conversation, Inkstone has produced a series of articles looking at China’s scientific breakthroughs.
In the last of our series, we look at how FAST, the largest radio telescope in the world, is leading the search for signs of extraterrestrial life.
The $180m facility, built in Guizhou province, a remote and mountainous part of southwestern China, allows researchers to collect radio waves from previously undetectable distances and could significantly enhance our understanding of the universe.
FAST – Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope – was built to help scientists better understand the universe.
Its key missions include receiving and recording pulsar and interstellar signals from extraterrestrial sources.
FAST far surpasses its predecessor, Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which had previously been world’s largest single-dish radio telescope.
“FAST’s deformable dish lets it accurately image twice as much the sky as Arecibo, with double the sensitivity and five to ten times the speed," explains Douglas Vakoch, president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.
The unprecedented sensitivity might lead to breakthrough discoveries on a wide range of subjects from pulsars to dark energy.
Launched in 2016, the telescope is in a three-year initial testing phase and has already detected 11 pulsars, or collapsed stars, which are thousands of light years away from earth.
Given FAST's superior capabilities, China is well placed to claim credit for any future detection of alien life.
In 2016, FAST partnered with Breakthrough Listen, $100 million program based at the Berkeley SETI (search for extraterrestrial life) Research Center.
"FAST will revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life," Vakoch says, "because the observatory’s innovative capabilities are matched by an institutional commitment to SETI."
"At a time when the cash-strapped US National Science Foundation is looking for reasons to divest from Arecibo, FAST’s expected contributions to astronomy at first blush seem to give some justification."
While the search faces many challenges – most obviously the fact that it is looking for something that may not exist – there could be one unexpected hurdle to overcome: FAST’s unexpected popularity with the Chinese public.
To work properly the dish has to be situated in a quiet, isolated area – some 9,000 locals were displaced during its construction – but the amount of tourism it has attracted is changing its environment.
On a public holiday last May, 220,000 flocked to see it – more than twice the number of annual visitors to the Puerto Rico facility. Tourism officials estimate that FAST could attract up to 10 million visitors.
One local official said: “That will be as many as the tourists to the Great Wall in Beijing. Here we have a new wonder of the world.”
The problem is that this influx will inevitably result in an increase in electromagnetic pollution.
Although the core facility is surrounded by a three-mile buffer zone, where the use of smartphones and other devices is banned without a permit, 10 million tourists a year far exceed planners’ estimates. It may be necessary to reassess the situation.
Scientists at the facility have privately expressed concerns about a drive to bolster tourism, while accepting that the impoverished region would welcome the extra income.
By the time FAST begins formal observation after the testing period ends, China's tourism ministry will have to determine the impact of millions of visitors.
And they had better act soon.
"If there are advanced civilizations out there trying to make contact, there’s a good chance we could find them in the next twenty years or so," Vakoch says. "By then we will have looked closely at over a million stars."
Until then, it's selfie time in Guizhou.