What can the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope in China do?

| Sep 30, 2016 12:13 PM EDT

An artist's rendition of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft hovering over Bennu the asteroid.

China has begun operating the world's largest single-dish radio telescope in the mountainous Guizhou region. The project aims to locate and make contact with alien life forms.

While the radio telescope is a half-kilometer wide, it cost $180 million and took five years to compete. It has dethroned Puerto Rico's 300-meter Arecibo Observertory, which previously held the record as the largest single-dish radio telescope.

Science Magazine reported that the five-hundred-metre aperture spherical radio telescope (FAST) can detect gravitation waves, dark matter and fast radio bursts. It can also catalog pulsars and listen for transmissions from extra-terrestrial civilizations.

FAST, which is made up for 4,450 triangular reflector panels, is two times more sensitive that the Arecibo Observatory, while its surveying speed is five to 10 times faster. 

The dish is a big leap in China's ambitious space program. By 2020, China aims to have established a permanent orbiting space station and a manned mission to the moon.

During a recent test, it was reported that FAST received signals from a pulsar that was 1,351 light-years away from Earth.

"The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe," said Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Phys.org quotes.

"In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us."

Construction of FAST began in 2011. Officials had to relocate 10,000 people living within three miles from the location of the dish to avoid any other signals interfering with the monitoring. The families that were relocated were given cash and housing grants by the government.

China also hopes to attract tourists to the site of the dish. Construction of tourist facilities such as the observation deck has been completed.

Studies on alien intelligence has piqued scientists' interest and enthusiasm even more these days, especially after a Russian telescope detected a "strong signal" when it was searching for extraterrestrial signals. However, experts said it was still too early to make conclusions about the signal's origin.

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