China is in the final stages of building the world’s largest-ever radio telescope, which will give Beijing a leading role in space research and the hunt for extra-terrestrials.
With a dish the size of 30 football pitches, the telescope will scan for signs of life as far as tens of billions of light years away. It will be able to pick up radio signals distant galaxies and solar systems, and also hunt for future sources of energy like natural hydrogen.
“A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe,” said Nan Rendong, the chief scientist at the project, known officially as the 500 Metre Aperture Spherical Telescope.
“It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm.”
Work on the telescope began in 2011 and is to be finished by September 2016. It will be substantially larger than the world’s existing biggest star-gazer, the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico, which was the setting for a secret electro-magnetic weapon in the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye.
The telescope’s home is in a rock basin in Pingtang County in south-west China’s Guizhou Province, specially chosen for the natural recess it provides to protect the telescope from the elements. The basin’s porous rock drains rainwater away quickly, while its distance from nearby towns ensures a high degree of “radio silence”.
In recent days, scientists behind the project have been installing panels of what will eventually be its “retina”, each one a giant triangle 33 feet…