spaceSpace and Physics

China Joins Search For Intelligent Life With World's Biggest Radio Telescope


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

China's FAST dish is 500 meters (1,600 feet) across. VCG/Getty Images

If there’s anyone else out there in the universe, the best way to find them is to listen intently for any noise – accidental or otherwise – they might be sending our way.

We’ve been doing this for decades with radio telescopes, via organizations like the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in California. More recently, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project to accelerate the hunt.


Called Breakthrough Listen, part of the broader Breakthrough Initiatives, it uses the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, USA, and the Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia to hunt for radio signals.

And now, Breakthrough Listen has announced it will also partner with China to search the skies for signals. It has entered a collaboration with the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) to use China's new radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou, which is the largest radio telescope in the world.

The NAOC will share data from FAST with Breakthrough Listen, including any promising signals that may be related to intelligent life, and the two organizations will also work together to refine search strategies.

“‘Are we alone?’ is a question that unites us as a planet,” said Yuri Milner, Founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives, in a statement.


“And the quest to answer it should take place at a planetary level too. With this agreement, we are now searching for cosmic companions with three of the world’s biggest telescopes across three continents.”

Hello? Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock

If there are other intelligent civilizations out there, the theory goes that we should be able to hear radio emissions they produce, just like we do on Earth. Of course, a more advanced race may have a different way to communicate – but for now, radio waves are our best bet.

And the odds are seemingly stacked in our favor. With 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and most stars thought to host at least one planet, surely we can’t be the only world with life on it. Right?


Despite numerous false alarms, our searches have proven fruitless so far. But FAST will give us an unprecedented ability to find signals, if there are any out there.

“Since 1960, astronomers have been using radio telescopes to search for signs of other civilizations. But the signals we seek are so faint, they could easily be missed,” Douglas Vakoch, President of METI International (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), told IFLScience.

“FAST’s innovative design and huge collecting area give it unsurpassed speed and sensitivity, making it vital to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the coming decades.

“SETI scientists worldwide can hope for discoveries they’d never dreamed of before.”


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