With a dish the size of 30 football pitches, the telescope will scan for signs of life as far as tens of billions of light years away. It will be able to pick up radio signals, distant galaxies and solar systems, and also hunt for future sources of energy such as natural hydrogen.
“A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe,” said Nan Rendong, the chief scientist at the project, known officially as the 500 Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope. “It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm.”
Work on the telescope began in 2011 and is to be finished by September next year. It will be substantially larger than the world’s current biggest stargazer, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which was the setting for a secret electro-magnetic weapon in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye.
The telescope’s home is in a rock basin in Pingtang County in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, chosen for the natural recess it provides to protect the telescope from the elements. The basin’s porous rock drains rainwater away quickly, while its distance from nearby towns ensures a high degree of “radio silence”.
In recent days, scientists behind the project have been installing panels of what will eventually be the telescope’s “retina”, each one a giant triangle 33 feet long. Special cables fixed to each one will allow the panels to be precision-adjusted during the operation of the telescope to within 10mm.
“It will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe,” said Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society.
The prospect of discovering life in space gained fresh scientific credence earlier this year, when NASA discovered an “Earthlike” planet named Kepler-452b. It was located about 1,400 light-years away from the solar system, and at the speed of a typical modern space craft, would take around 26 million years to reach. Nasa identified Kepler-452b as a rare example of a so-called “Goldilocks planet” — one that is capable of supporting human-style life because it is neither too close to its sun nor too distant. China is now on track to become a world leader in the space race, which its leaders view as confirmation of the country’s superpower status. In 2003, it became the third nation to put a human into orbit. Since then, Chinese astronauts have walked in space, launched an orbital space lab and sent a probe to the Moon.
China did not even launch its first satellite until 1970. Now, it rivals Russia in launching commercial satellites, sending 20 into orbit last year alone. Some worry that science is not the only motivation behind China’s space programme, given that its efforts are believed to be largely managed by the People’s Liberation Army and directed by the Central Military Commission.
Should aliens ever choose to respond to any of the new telescope’s radio signals, they might hear the phrase “Youren ma?” It translates roughly as “Is anybody out there?”
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