China Builds World’s Largest Radio Telescope But Can’t Find Anyone To Run It

The largest radio telescope in the world sits idle and empty in China with no one to run it.

The SCMP report alluded to this alternative narrative, stating that several scientists at the facility declined to comment out of concern that doing so could lead to political trouble. One unnamed scientist did say that the decision to hire from overseas came from the top.

The original SCMP report was rehashed on other news sources, including Newsweek. Then Chinese news source Cankaoxiaoxi translated Newsweek’s posting for its own website and was later cited by other websites. But since then, Cankaoxiaoxi has taken down the posting.

Shooting for the Stars and Falling Short

The CAS has been misleading with other information as well. At an advertised 500 meters in diameter, FAST measures nearly twice as large as the 300-meter US-owned Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Yet FAST’s effective size is only about 400 meters. The larger size required the Chinese government to displace, compensate and relocate up to 9,000 of its own citizens from their rural homes and communities.

The scientific purpose of the new telescope comes into question as well. The Arecibo radio telescope finds itself at the bottom of the National Science Foundation’s priority list, because the search for alien life might not be enough reason to justify the $8 million annual operating budget. Not only does this mean that the Arecibo telescope is in danger of shutting down, but it also reflects that listening to radio signals from the stars has become a low priority overall, causing FAST to lose significance in the global science community.

In addition, while Arecibo is capable of transmitting as well as receiving radio waves, FAST is passive in design and can only receive signals. This makes FAST useless in identifying such treats as near-Earth asteroids, and in the case that alien life does make contact, FAST won’t be able to say hello back.

China’s telescope woes don’t end there. Chinese astronomers and CAS are experiencing difficulty agreeing on the ambitious plans for yet another telescope – this one an optical telescope that is also intended to be the largest of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, its current plans for the unnamed telescope would be dwarfed in half before it even starts by the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, scheduled to finish construction as early as 2022.

So in China’s race to be the biggest and best, was it worth displacing its own people to build a half-functioning telescope in the search for aliens? Why all the expense, if there are no practical benefits?

Luis C. Ho, director of the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University suggests it is less about science and more about status.

“Astronomy is an ultimate expression of ‘pure’ science that has little immediate practical benefits. It is a luxury that only the most advanced economies enjoy.”

For more information on China’s new telescope: Second Nexus

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