Monster Chinese Telescope the Next ET Hunter?

In radio astronomy, the bigger the telescope, the better.

In 2016, the Chinese are expected to blow the international radio telescope competition out of the water with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST).

Construction has begun in the Guizhou Province in southern China where the world's largest single dish radio telescope will take up residency in a natural depression in the landscape, not dissimilar to the world-famous Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. However, FAST will be bigger, faster and more sensitive than Arecibo.

Featuring a 500 meter diameter "dish," FAST will contain 4,400 triangular aluminum panels, suspended inside the dish, each of which can be adjusted to deform the dish's overall shape. This ability means FAST, although rooted into the Guizhou countryside, will have some generous maneuverability.

One huge factor in choosing the Guizhou Province is that it is a remote location, generally free of interfering radio transmissions from populated areas. As my Discovery News colleague and radio astronomer Nicole Gugliucci always reminds us, (radio) silence is golden.

Arecibo's fixed-dish design means it can only use 221 meters of its 305-meter dish at any one time. FAST will have the collecting power of the entire 305 meter Arecibo dish, and will be able to scan more of the sky in doing so - it will be able to "tilt" its viewing angle 40 degrees from the vertical in all directions, a luxury Arecibo never had.

The FAST concept began life as the Chinese contribution to the international Square Kilometer Array (SKA), but the SKA project will eventually find a home in either South Africa or Australia, using an array of smaller radio antennae, mimicking a single large telescope. In 2006, China decided to go it alone with FAST and devoted funds to its construction.

Not only will the adaptive shape of FAST enable astronomers to direct this powerful radio antenna with ease, its sensitivity will be second to none. It will be able to "see" three times deeper into space than Arecibo and generate the sharpest ever radio observations of interstellar gas, pulsars, supernovae, black hole emissions and join the effort to hunt for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

In 1995, the SETI Institute launched Project Phoenix, an attempt to survey 1,000 nearby sun-like stars, listening out for any artificial radio "beep." With the inclusion of FAST, the scope of this project could be increased, allowing SETI to survey 5,000 of the nearest sun-like stars. FAST could theoretically detect ET "phoning home" up to 1,000 light-years away.

Could FAST be the radio eye we need to spot our transmitting intelligent extraterrestrial neighbors? We'll have to wait another five years to find out.

Image: An artist impression of the completed FAST. Credit: Nan et al.