China has approved the construction of the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, as it continues to cement itself as a major power in astronomy.
Called the Xingjiang Qitai Radio Telescope (QTT), this new dish will span 110 meters (360 feet) around its entire edge, eclipsing the current record holder – the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, US – by a few meters.
The telescope will be built in the Tian Shan mountain range in the western region of Xinjiang, a location picked from almost 50 other candidates in the region. It’s hoped the mountains will block out stray radio signals and, coupled with the telescope’s immense size, allow for some fantastic science to take place.
"The antenna, the world's largest, will be able to trace the origins of any signals received," said Song Huagang of the Chinese Academy of Science Xinjiang observatory, reported Xinhua.
The QTT is scheduled to be switched on in 2023, when it will be used to study 75 percent of the sky. It will study signals in the 150 MHz to 115 GHz range, useful for things including gravitational waves, black holes, and dark matter.
In 2016 China opened the world’s largest filled-aperture radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST). This huge dish is located in a natural depression in the ground, and as such can only point at a narrow region of the sky – although it has still made a number of interesting discoveries already.
The QTT, being a fully steerable telescope, will allow scientists to hone in on specific regions of the sky. Aside from astronomical phenomena, it could also be used by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) community to look for interesting signals.
“It will be a boon to SETI scientists in China to have two major radio telescopes,” Douglas Vakoch, president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), told IFLScience.
“If the FAST observatory picks up the telltale sign of alien intelligence, international protocols for confirming that the signal really is from ET will kick in, and the researchers will benefit greatly by being able to follow up with the flexible QTT.”
China already has a 25-meter (82 feet) radio telescope at the Xinjiang observatory, but this new dish will be about 20 times bigger. The country also has plans to build its largest optical telescope, 12 meters (39 feet) across, in the Tibet Autonomous Region.