With China poised to lead the world in AI and supercomputers, astronomers are wondering if it will also be the first advanced nation to discover extraterrestrial life? Perhaps the world’s largest single-dish radio observatory, China’s new FAST Radio Telescope –Tiyan, the “Eye of Heaven”– will provide an answer as it prepares to explore a frontier in radioastronomy — using radio waves to locate exoplanets, which may harbor extraterrestrial life.
During a visit to the remote facility, Liu Cixin, China’s acclaimed science fiction writer and winner of the Hugo Award for his novel “The Three Body Problem”, observed: “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent. But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”
Whispers from the Cosmos
The Chinese observatory’s massive dish will collect radio waves from an area twice the size of the next-largest single-dish telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico means that it can detect extremely faint radio-wave whispers from an array of sources across the universe, reports Elizabeth Gibney in Nature, helping in the hunt for gravitational waves and probe still-mysterious fleeting blasts of radiation known as fast radio bursts. The Chinese government is expected to give the state-of-the-art observatory the final green light to begin full operations at a review meeting scheduled for next month.
Concluding his tour of the gargantuan FAST facility nestled in the remote mountain fastness of Dawodang depression in the Guizhou province of southwest China, Liu Cixin pointed out our current searches assumes that aliens also communicate in radio waves. “But if it’s a truly advanced civilization, it is possible to use other more advanced forms of communication, such as gravitational waves.”
With no clues of extraterrestrial life questions are constantly asked as whether the search methods are appropriate. “Some strange signals have been found, but it’s hard to confirm their origins, because these signals do not repeat,” says Li Di, FAST’s chief scientist. “We look for not only television signals, but also atomic bomb signals. We’ll give full play to our imaginations when processing the signals,” Li says. “It’s a complete exploration, as we don’t know what an alien is like.”
“We can receive weaker and more distant radio messages,” said Wu Xiangping, director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, “It will help us to search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe,” he added underscoring the China’s race to be the first nation to discover the existence of an advanced alien civilization.
The dish will have a perimeter of about 1.6 kilometers, and there are no towns within five kilometers, giving it ideal surroundings to listen for signals from space. Scientists have depicted it as a super-sensitive “ear” capable of spotting very weak messages – if there are any – from “cousins” of human beings.
“It is highly possible that life on other planets is entirely different from that on Earth, and it might not be carbon-based,” says Jin Hairong, deputy curator of Beijing Planetarium.
Mao Shude with the National Astronomical Observatories of China and professor of astrophysics at the Jodrell Bank Observatory believes many methods deserve a try: “Who knows what they are and how they think? When we study the origin of life, we risk going down a blind alley if we only have one sample from Earth,” Mao says. “If we could find more samples in the universe, we could look at the puzzle more comprehensively and solve it more easily.”
Shude gives an example in astronomy to explain the limitations of a single sample. “When scientists started to look for planets around Sun-like stars, they thought it must be difficult as their period might be as long as a year. However, the first such planet discovered outside our solar system takes only four days to orbit its host star – much faster than astronomers expected. At that time, some people doubted it, showing how the example of our solar system narrowed their thinking.”
“If we really discover extraterrestrial life, I’d like to know how life spreads in the universe. Is it distributed uniformly in space, or clustered?” Mao wonders.
However, the idea communicating with aliens comes with common-sense worries. The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin depicted the universe as a jungle with every civilization as a hidden hunter. Those who are exposed will be eliminated.
But Han Song, another leading Chinese science fiction writer, believes humans naturally want to connect, citing the Internet as proof. “I think aliens might think similarly. It is a biological instinct to connect with each other. Everyone wants to prove that they are not alone in the universe. Loneliness is intolerable to humans,” he says.
He also points out that the contact will be driven by curiosity and real requirements. “Humans will ultimately go to space to find resources and expand their living area, so it will be hard to avoid aliens. Contact with them, especially those with more advanced intelligence, may help us leap forward in civilization.”
Regardless of the theoretical debate, scientists have never wavered in the search. “I think we shall call out. As a matter of fact, we have been yelling for years, and our radios and televisions are broadcasting in space all the time,” Mao says, “Aren’t you curious what our counterparts would look like?
If they are inferior or equal to us in terms of civilization, we won’t be easily destroyed. If they are much more intelligent than us, they wouldn’t be so narrow-minded as to compete with us. Some worry they will come to rob us of our natural resources, but they likely have the power to transform the entire globe already. What’s the point of eliminating a much lower civilization?”
Mao believes the result will be significant however it turns out. “If we find other life, it will undoubtedly be the most important scientific discovery in our history; if not, it shows that life on Earth is unique and we should respect life and cherish each other.
But one such encounter occurred during the 19th century ended otherwise, Liu observed, “when the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of China, around which all of Asia had once revolved, looked out to sea and saw the ships of Europe’s seafaring empires, whose ensuing invasion triggered a loss in status for China comparable to the fall of Rome.”
Image credit: With thanks to fractal artist extraordinaire Julius Horsthuis