This year, China plans to connect with aliens using the world's largest single-dish radio telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST).
While FAST was primarily created to collect new information about galaxies, black holes, and stars, researchers who helped develop the telescope are not ruling aliens out of the equation.
Before his death in 2017, Nan Rendong, chief engineer of FAST, told Nature the telescope will be used to investigate whether extraterrestrials could be sending us signals, the South China Morning Post reported.
Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and principal investigator for Breakthrough Listen, a program that leads the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, told VICE that he met with Rendong a few times before his death to discuss this goal.
“He was a huge proponent of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and very interested in seeing this science be a part of radio astronomy in China and with FAST,” Siemion said.
While E.T. and Roger from American Dad! may be the closest humans have come to seeing aliens, some theorize that fast radio bursts (FRBs) – strong bursts of radio waves that come from space – could be alien signals. This week, Canadian scientists detected repeating fast radio bursts for the second time ever, using the CHIME radio telescope.
Although astronomers are not completely sure where FRBs come from, scientists hope FAST, which is expected to become fully operational this year, will allow them to detect even more of these signals.
“FAST is already a very sensitive observatory and as it becomes fully commissioned, it will become even more sensitive and more capable,” Siemion told VICE. “We expect that FAST could be a very powerful radio telescope for searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. We’re very excited to work with our colleagues in China.”
However, many astronomers criticize the theory that FRBs come from aliens.
“These signals come from many different parts of the sky, and different distances, and it would be too much of a coincidence to have multiple alien populations in different, very distant galaxies, all sending the same kinds of signals,” Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist from the University of British Columbia told VICE.
While Siemion agrees that FRBs are likely a natural phenomena, he thinks it’s unfair to completely throw out the idea that they come from aliens.
“I think it is impossible for us to imagine what technological capabilities we might have in 100 years or 1,000 years, let alone many millions or billions of years into the future,” Siemion said. “We need to keep an open mind about the possibility that technologically-capable life could in fact spread throughout the universe, perhaps even between galaxies. There would be no greater hubris on the part of human beings than to imagine that only happened once.”
Douglas Bock, the director of astronomy and space science at CSIRO and the Australia Telescope National Facility, built FAST’s receiver, or its 19-pixel camera, with his team. He agreed FRBs are likely not signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. However, he told VICE that regardless of where these signals are coming from, FAST, which will discover objects 19 times more quickly than a telescope with just one pixel, could gather a lot of new information about the universe.
For example, Li Di and his team at the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported that they have already found more than 20 pulsars, or rapidly spinning stars, including a millisecond pulsar, using the $184 million telescope.
“I think this year, pulsars are the big game for FAST,” Bock told VICE. “The FAST telescope is being used for so many things, so I expect they’ll be doing great galactic science. Indeed they’ll be looking for interstellar elements and molecules as Nan Rendong mentioned.”
Despite questioning theories about FRBs, Bock, who uses the Parkes Telescope in Australia, which is funded by Siemion’s Breakthrough Listen program, said his team looks for signals that intelligence in other worlds may be sending us deliberately.
“I think we have to acknowledge that there could well be life somewhere else in our universe and even in our galaxy, but there are billions of stars out there and presumably, billions of planets and probably, we won’t find anything anytime soon,” Bock told VICE. “Right now, we’re still only with the current technology looking at the relatively near parts of our galaxy and sensitivity that would allow us to pick up a signal similar to the kind of signal we would transmit.”
Regardless of how long the search may take or what FAST could find, the Chinese government has not taken the FAST project lightly. In 2016, The New York Times reported that officials asked over 9,000 villages to relocate so the telescope could be built on their former homes. Each villager received $1,800 as compensation.
Siemion points to how far scientists have come since the 90s as evidence that “we are not alone.” He told VICE that researchers now know Earth-like, “habitable,” rocky planets like the sun that are capable of having liquid water on their surface “are the rule rather than the exception.” He is confident astronomers will learn even more this year.
“I think there’s a lot to be excited about in 2019 as for as the search for life goes,” Siemion told VICE. “I think FAST’s incredibly singular sensitivity will bring with it some very interesting discoveries.”
“We’re at a remarkable moment in human history where we have the opportunity to answer a very profound question, a question that I think humans have asked for as long as humans have existed.”
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.