Energy

New Space Race Continues As China Unveils World’s Largest Telescope

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter

China just escalated its space race against the U.S. Sunday by unveiling the world’s largest radio telescope.

China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) took five years and $180 million to complete. It’s bigger than the U.S.’s 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. China claims its new telescope has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory and five to 10 times the surveying speed.

Chinese scientists say FAST will search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” Qian Lei, an associate researcher China’s national observatory, told state-controlled media CCTV. “In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us.”

CCTV acknowledged that more than 8,000 people from eight villages were forcefully relocated from a three-mile radius around the telescope to ensure radio silence.

FAST isn’t the extent of China’s ambitions in outer space.

China aims to land a solar-powered rover on Mars in 2020, and to become the first country to send an object to the dark side of the moon that same year. The country’s annual space budget is less than the U.S.’s, but most of NASA’s cash is spent on environmental issues and other fields not directly related to space exploration. Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects and its military-backed space program, which saw the launch of the country’s second space station earlier this month.

“After years of investment and strategy, China is well on its way to becoming a space superpower—and maybe even a dominant one,” reports Popular Science. “Now, satellites guide Chinese aircraft, missiles, and drones, while watching over crop yields and foreign military bases. The growing number of missions involving Chinese rockets and taikonauts [astronauts] are a source of immense national pride.”

China staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon, increased its cooperation in space with Europe, and launched a demo space station all since its first manned space launch in 2003. The country launched a total of five crewed flights since 2003 and launched its second space station into orbit earlier this month.

China aims to land a solar-powered rover on Mars in 2020, and to become the first country to send an object to the dark side of the moon that same year. The country’s annual space budget is less than the U.S.’s, but most of NASA’s cash is spent on environmental issues and other fields not directly related to space exploration.

China has been militarizing space as well. The communist country successfully targeted and destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit in 2007, and has likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.

A report published in August by the U.S. National Academies found that the Department of Defense “urgently needs” new policies to defend U.S. satellites, since both Russia and China are developing space weapons capable of knocking out U.S. satellites in any future conflict, giving them a potentially catastrophic edge in war.

China’s space program, however, still faces serious problems.

The Chinese lunar rover had numerous mechanical problems and was ultimately abandoned. China’s first attempt to send a satellite into Mars orbit in 2011 failed when the rocket carrying it blew up before even reaching Earth’s orbit.

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