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China's big dish is a big deal for Planet Earth

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26 September 2016 11:45

China has now started to operate the world's largest radio telescope. The 500-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) rests in a natural depression in Guizhou, and resembles the famous 300 metre Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. Size alone does not speak of its power. The telescope's reflecting panels can be individually steered. The instruments are highly sensitive. Much of the technology in FAST was developed in Australia by our own world-class scientists. That's understandable from a technical perspective, but it also reflects the fact that American scientists would probably not have been able to co-operate with China to the same extent. Political tensions between the US and China restrict co-operation in space research, largely due to American legislation.

The big dish is another reminder that China is flexing its muscles in science, technology and space exploration. Earlier this month, China launched the Tiangong 2 space laboratory, and expects to soon launch two astronauts to live on board the lab for a month. America is scaling back its astronomy programs and can't even launch astronauts. This is more than just symbolism for a rising power. These projects reflect and reinforce national capabilities that benefit society, the economy and national defence.

The FAST telescope will mostly be used for general astronomy, but China has been highly public in discussing one of its uses. China plans to search the universe for intelligent life, hoping to intercept signals broadcast by civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been carried out by small teams of astronomers for decades without success. It generally suffers from poor funding and a lack of respect from the general scientific community, although the 'Breakthrough Listen' project sponsored by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has been helpful to this ailing area of science. Some governments seem to view SETI with suspicion, concerned about how a discovery would affect social perceptions and religious viewpoints.

It is clear that China takes SETI seriously and has no reservations about stating this openly. With the world's largest dish and support for research, China now stands a good chance of making humanity's first contact with extraterrestrials. That would be a major achievement for China, but it would also be a big deal for the entire world. In the twentieth century, Apollo astronauts planted the American flag on the Moon. The world shared in the glory, generally perceiving the moon landings as an achievement for all humanity. A Chinese discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would hopefully be seen in the same light.

Photo: Getty Images/VCG

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