It requires no special intellect to understand the human fascination with the wide blue yonder. For, constant attempts have been made since time immemorial to know the world one is living in better. However, ever since humans accomplished the impossible, i.e., propelling the rocket onto the orbit, the rat race to make ground-breaking discoveries has broken out among the nations. A significant addition to the colossal measures is the Chinese’s radio telescope “Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST)”.
FAST was successfully installed on July 3rd this year following 5 years of construction. Post debugging and testing, it has been made available for the Chinese scientists for “early-stage research”. But, it will take 2 to 3 years before scientists from around the globe could take it out for a free spin.
Comfortably nestled against the oval-shaped hollow terrains of southwest china, precisely in Guizhou province, FAST is effectively insulated from the interference of electromagnetic waves emanating from sources like cell phones, radio, television and motor vehicles. The location regarded as a radio quiet zone was painstakingly chosen post short-listing 400 places that were surveyed over a frame of 10 years.
As opposed to its optical counterparts, this radio telescope has dish-shaped antennas similar to those found in satellites that receive radio waves from astronomical radio sources such as stars, nebulas and galaxies. FAST has along the way dethroned the 305-Meter diameter Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico to be named the largest among its brethren by spanning across a width of 500 Meters (equal to 30 football fields!) comprising of 4450 panels. Though the technology and materials are predominantly domestic, 2 out of 7 receivers are said to have been jointly made by Chinese, Australian and American institutions.
The telescope’s most exciting objective is the detection of radio signals and signs of extra-terrestrial life from the far reaches of the universe. Owing to its large size, the telescope supposedly has ‘5 to 10 times the potential’ in successfully detecting exolanets across our galaxy.
Besides its visionary mission to contact the extra-terrestrial beings, there are two other central functions: First, locating Pulsars which result due to the collapse of the stars that run out of fuel in their cores. In other words, the residues of Supernovas whose measurements would open new possibilities to explore the elusive gravitational waves ushered in by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Also, comprehending the fundamental physics underlying pulsars will in turn empower the scientists to discover the events that led to the fruition of the Big Bang; Second, examining the electromagnetic radiation emanating from neutral hydrogen which is key to the determination of the rate of expansion of the universe.
On the other hand, displacement of 9000 civilians in a bid to raise it comes as a shocker. Much to one’s chagrin, reportedly only a pittance of 12,000 Yuans (nearly 118000 INR) was paid as solatium. But, this would not be china’s first time to displace its citizens. Since the 70s, over 40 million Chinese have been forcibly dislocated at the behest of the government for execution of various initiatives.
The government has reportedly pumped $180 million to erect this radio telescope. Like many other endeavors should this also be interpreted as an attempt out of desperation to unseat the current superpower and be crowned Numero Uno? With poverty taking a turn for worse every second, shouldn’t the money be invested in the welfare of the poor? Shouldn’t one better the status quo of earth for immediate results rather than spending wads of cash on space exploration whose positive returns is not probable? There isn’t a lot of merit in the preceding questions. But, the answers that come in seem to be markedly divided.
FAST will kick start its pilot hunt for intelligent life by exploring the Tabby Star or KIC 8462852, whose flickering sphere has attracted astronomers and scientists for many years, earning it almost celebrity status.