China Could Make the First Alien Life Discovery With Its New Giant Telescope
The 21st-century space race will be decided by which superpower becomes the first to make contact with alien life. And it looks like China may beat everyone else to the punch.
China already operates the world's largest radio telescope, the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). But this week, the country also approved plans for the Xingjiang Qitai 110m Radio Telescope (QTT), a new telescope with a steerable dish that's 10 percent larger in diameter than the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia, which was previously the largest steerable telescope in the world. China's new telescope will have the ability to cover 75 percent of the sky.
Fully steerable radio telescopes like these are essential for detecting specific signals, as they can be moved, rotated, and aimed at specific targets. The telescope will operate at 150 MHz to 115 GHz, frequencies optimized to conduct research on gravitational waves, black holes and dark matter.
"The antenna, the world's largest, will be able to trace the origins of any signals received," said Song Huagang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Xinjiang observatory in a statement.
"The new site in Shihezi is a sparsely populated foothill of Tianshan Mountains in northeast Xinjiang," the statement continues. "The mountain ranges surrounding the site will shield the telescope from electromagnetic noise." That shield is essential when researchers are trying to isolate a signal or potential communication. Though the Xinjiang observatory already has a 25-meter radio telescope, the new telescope is roughly 20 times larger.
the 500-meter FAST, launched in 2016, can cover some lower frequencies than QTT is able to cover, and together they have an overlapping coverage of 150 MHz and 3 GHz. This creates a sweet spot for researchers hopeful to discover alien life.
"It's a quiet space between prominent spectral lines created by hydrogen and hydroxyl, the constituents of water that is so central to life on Earth," said Doug Vakoch of METI International. "The partially overlapping frequency range of the QTT and FAST means that the detection of a candidate signal by one telescope can be followed up immediately by the other instrument, assuming the data is being analyzed in real time."
Other telescopes are pulling their weight in the search for alien life too, though. The ESPRESSO telescope, a network of four separate telescopes that uses mirrors each about the height of a person, can pick up the signatures of previously invisible exoplanets. Not to be outdone, NASA's Kepler telescope has discovered thousands of exoplanets that may sustain alien life, including a recent discovery of five new planets by civilians who reassessed old Kepler data .