The search for extraterrestrial life will soon be getting a major boost with the largest radio telescope being built. FAST, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope is currently a year away from being completed. Located in Xinhua, China, it promises to be able to listen to stars tens of billions of light years away.
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is gaining momentum. With the discovery of exoplanets similar to our own planet, it becomes not a matter of if life exists but when we will discover it. The Kepler mission launched in 2009 with the mission of finding far away planets orbiting distant stars. So far, Kepler has found over a thousand different planets.
Exoplanets are found by observing stars far away. By measuring the light that the stars give, scientists can determine when something passes in front of the star. This dims the light the star is giving off. If the dimming is occurring at a regular time, it is indicative of a planet orbiting the star. Other calculations can be made as to what the planet is made of and how far it is from the planet. Some planets have even been found to be within the “Goldilocks Zone”. This is a range of distance from a star where water is likely to exist in liquid form. Finding water means finding life.
However, information can be gathered through other means that provide additional data. Data from light telescopes make up only small portion of the data we can retrieve. Radio telescopes help retrieve this data. The electromagnetic spectrum is vast. Different telescopes assist us in collecting waves from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio telescopes sit further to the left of the spectrum. They observe waves that are more far apart than light waves. The construction of FAST will allow researchers the ability to observe some radio waves on Earth for the first time.
FAST began construction in 2011 and boasts that it will become the biggest radio telescope on Earth, becoming larger than the Arecibo Observatory located in Puerto Rico which currently holds the record with a diameter of 305 meters. It will be completed in 2016 and will have the mission of searching for life outside our solar system among other important scientific missions.
FAST will have a diameter of approximately 500 meters or 1,600ft. The construction takes advantage of the natural depression where the telescope will be located. Using the depression, scientists will be able to move the telescope in different directions. The range will be an improvement to 40 degrees while Arecibo’s is at 20 degrees.
While it is unlikely that the radio telescope will find terrestrials, it is believed that the telescope will assist in the search. This construction is also important to the Chinese as they seek to become a larger player in the field of astronomy and even other science related fields. Before the construction, they had to rely on studying data collected by others. This will assist them in becoming an ever growing player in the scientific community.