The Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST)
southwest China's Guizhou Province.
Researchers using China's new Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST), the largest single-dish scope in the world, are piecing together a technological strategy to carry out a major and sweeping Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Space.com asked several SETI authorities to flesh out the implications of China being the first nation to get a ping from ET.
FAST is a leap forward for Asia's presence in radio astronomy and possibly in SETI.
Indeed, the Chinese now can be major players in SETI if the nation chooses to be, said Michael Michaud, author of the book "Contact with Alien Civilizations - Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials" (2007).
China has a vast reservoir of scientific and engineering talent, Michaud said.
The nation also has an authoritarian government that can command resources at will, without facing significant political opposition. Above all is the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, whose leaders dominate decision-making.
The FAST telescope would not exist without the Party's approval, he said.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)
is an international, collaborative affair.
SETI scientist Dan Werthimer of the University of California, Berkeley,
co-authored a recent paper on China's SETI program
with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).
He is shown here with other FAST SETI collaborators,
including the paper's lead author, Zhi-Song Zhang, to his left.
(Image credit: Dan Werthimer)
In his 2008 novel "The Three-Body Problem," award-winning Chinese science-fiction writer Cixin Liu painted a dark picture of what such messaging extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) signals could mean for humankind, Michaud said.
Space race redo?
Ultimately, the key to confirming first contact, Douglas Vakoch said, lies in a geographically separated collection of dishes with sophisticated signal-processing capabilities for detecting transmissions from advanced civilizations.
SETI searches have the potential to detect
whether the neighboring M31 Andromeda Galaxy
hosts any advanced technological civilizations.
(Image credit: Miguel Claro)
SETI scientists who are tracking promising signals coming from the vicinity of another star want to keep the observations going even after the star sets at their observatory, Vakoch pointed out.
Vakoch said that, as China implements its Commensal Radio Astronomy FAST Survey (CRAFTS), the nation will be on the lookout for such widely differing phenomena as fast radio bursts, pulsars and - with beefed-up signal processing capabilities - distinctly artificial signals from extraterrestrial intelligence.
Astronomer Frank Drake with his famous equation,
which estimates the abundance of intelligent life in the cosmos.
identifies specific factors
believed to play a role in the development of civilizations
in our galaxy.
(Image credit: SETI Institute)
Scenario for secrecy
So, if SETI scientists detect a good candidate signal with China's FAST, to confirm the signal they may need to wait until it can be picked up by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia, or the Green Bank Observatory in the United States, Vakoch said.
The most likely scenario for secrecy following detection of a putative signal, Vakoch said, is in a targeted search.
In targeted searches, a telescope points at one star for a few minutes, and if it finds no telltale signs of ET, it moves to the next target star on its list.
So if aliens are transmitting in Earth's direction at the exact time we just so happened to be scanning their star system for radio signals, we probably didn't just get lucky, Vakoch said.
Steven Dick said that any discovery in China is bound to be complicated by geopolitical considerations and communication problems.
Consequences of discovery
In the unlikely case that there is an unambiguous ET signal, with an encoded message, and if the message can be deciphered, Dick said, all bets are off, depending on what the message says!
In short, the consequences of the discovery of an ET signal very much depend on the discovery scenario, Dick concluded.
Researchers have written a paper about FAST's first SETI observations (First SETI Observations with China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope - FAST)...