In a natural depression in southwest China, a device that some are calling the Heavenly Eye is probing the universe. This huge construction has only been scanning deep into space for just over a year, but it’s already made some incredible discoveries – and the scientists who operate it think more could be on the way.
The search for life across the cosmos has been going on since radio was first invented in the early part of the 20th century. In the 1980s matters became a little more serious, though, with countries around the world banding together to try to find aliens among the stars. But extraterrestrial life is just one of the things that the Chinese telescope is looking for.
The Heavenly Eye’s official name is the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – or FAST, for short. It’s the biggest telescope of its kind in the world and the second biggest such single-aperture device. Only the Ratan-600 in Russia is bigger. So, by any measure, it’s certainly a gargantuan piece of equipment.
As you might be able to tell from its real name, FAST is around 1,600 feet in diameter, while in terms of composition, it’s made up of almost 4,500 triangular panels with sides each measuring 36 feet. Meanwhile, a series of winches underneath the panels lets them move to have a better view of the sky. This means, mind you, that the telescope can only use three-fifths of its aperture at one time.
If you’re thinking that the telescope is the sort that you look through, though, you’d be wrong. You see, it’s what’s known as a radio telescope, which means that it scans the sky for the distinct radio-wave signatures of astronomical objects. As a result, it can be used in the daytime, unlike an optical telescope. And this also accounts for the size of FAST – as well as many of the problems that plagued its construction.
The building of the huge telescope began in 2011, but its history actually goes back a good deal further than that. The idea for FAST dates as far back as 1994, in fact, and it was subsequently commissioned in 2007. Constructing the massive piece of apparatus wasn’t without its controversy, either, mind you, and that’s partly down to its sheer size.
A village that housed 65 people had to be moved in order to free up space for the construction of the telescope. Yet that wasn’t even the biggest problem that the Chinese faced while trying to get FAST operative. You see, despite its size, the telescope is an incredibly sensitive piece of equipment, and as a result it needs what’s known as “radio quiet” in order to work properly.
This meant creating an unpopulated area around the telescope, and so more than 9,000 people within a three-mile radius were also relocated. This was, moreover, far from a simple process, and 500 families attempted to take the local authorities to court in order to get compensation. In the end, in fact, the cost of moving local residents was greater than the price of building FAST itself.
And the building process was by no means cheap. The original budget for the telescope was around $100 million. By the time it was completed, however, the cost of the construction alone was closer to $180 million. Oh, and that’s before you even factor in the $270 million that was spent on creating the space that FAST needed to function effectively.
Still, after its troubled creation, FAST made what’s known as “first light” on September 25, 2016. First light isn’t the first image that the telescope takes, though; rather, it’s the first time that the instrument is used to take astronomical readings. And while these readings aren’t usually of any particular scientific value, because the telescope still needs refining, first light here was still an exciting milestone for those involved in the construction of the giant device.
But what does all of this money and time mean about the power of FAST? Well, according to China Daily, engineers have claimed that FAST is so sensitive that it could detect someone using a cellphone on the Moon. There’s more to the telescope than even that, though. Indeed, within its first year of operation it has already picked up two incredible stellar objects.
Those two objects are called pulsars – neutron stars that rotate at unbelievable speeds. It often takes them each less than a second to spin round a single time, in fact, and they release large pulses of radiation. Moreover, perhaps unsurprisingly, staff at FAST believe that distinguishing the two pulsars in just the first year of the telescope’s life is an impressive feat.
Speaking to China Daily, the deputy director at the FAST project, Peng Bo, said, “It is truly encouraging to have achieved such results within just one year.” But the Chinese have their sights set on even more impressive discoveries in the coming months and years. And these include trying to spot something that no one has ever seen before.
Pulsars were first discovered in the 1960s by Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, two astronomers from the United Kingdom. What’s more, since then around 2,500 of the celestial objects have been spotted. Those pulsars are, however, almost exclusively within the confines of the Milky Way. And the team at FAST are hoping to take things a few steps farther than that.
A lot of scientists have high hopes that FAST is going to be the first telescope to detect a pulsar outside of the Milky Way. They also think it’s highly likely that the Chinese installation will more than double the number of pulsars that we know of inside our own galaxy. Yet its mission goes even further than that.
You see, in October 2016 – just a month after FAST was first used – it signed up to a new initiative. That project is called Breakthrough Listen, and it’s being run by SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Breakthrough Listen is spending $100 million dollars in an attempt to discover life elsewhere in the universe.
To do that, the project is using three different radio telescopes. There’s the Green Bank Radio Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. And after the initiative started in January, these two were joined by FAST. Together, the devices will be able to search far more of the cosmos than previous projects, spending thousands of hours looking for signs of life.
Furthermore, while there’s of course no guarantee of finding alien life forms, the other important work that FAST is doing is likely to change the cosmological landscape for years to come. Its precision and size will put it at the forefront of building a new map of the known universe. And according to some, it’s a map that’s unlikely to be equaled for a long while.
U.S. astronomer Marko Krco certainly thinks so. Speaking to China Daily, he said, “FAST is going to become central in developing a new map of our universe that is going to be used for all sorts of science. It will probably be many decades before a better map is created.”
There are likely to be teething problems moving forward, however, especially with signal contamination as FAST becomes a tourist destination. But the future is nevertheless looking bright for the giant telescope. And who knows: it may be the first instrument to show that there really is other life out there in the depths of space.