China’s heavenly eye

Tianyan, or The Heavenly Eye, China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope, under construction in Guizhou Province in 2015.

In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in the universe, China has developed Earth’s biggest 500-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) – sometimes called Tianyan, or the Heavenly Eye – that may well empower China to become the first to experience a “close encounter” with aliens, if there are any out there.

 The National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) has built the world’s most sensitive radio telescope with the largest reflector for collecting signals from space. FAST is almost twice the size and 2.25 times as sensitive as America’s 350-meter Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. China’s FAST installation, with its ability to pick up the faintest signals from distant galaxies, is however, hardly China’s first encounter with the heavens.

For more than 2,100 years (221 B.C .to 1911), China was governed by emperors who believed in The Mandate of Heaven, or Tian Ming, a political and spiritual doctrine inspired by the stars to validate the imperial dynastic system in the “Middle Celestial Kingdom.” Tian Ming is no longer acknowledged as a galactic power conveying political strategies, though it would seem that President Xi Jinping would have such a mandate after consolidating power at home and looking to it abroad. Still, the supernatural mandate has been supplanted by science. 

 The NAOC observatory resembles a flying saucer with a diameter of approximately 30 football fields. It took five years to construct deep in the remote Dawadong depression in Guizhou Province, which was chosen because it is enclosed by the limestone Karst Mountains. These “Jade Hairpins” form a natural screen to help protect the telescope from extreme weather and radio signals generated here on Earth. So this scientific “eye,” probing dark matter and searching the cosmos for the origins of the universe, could also be termed a “Heavenly Ear” because it could just as easily pick up messages from alien civilizations as it can pick up signals from stars. 

Tianyan, or The Heavenly Eye, China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope, under construction in Guizhou Province in 2015.

The Heavenly Eye, custom built for $180 million, uses a parabolic-like reflector composed of 4,450 metal triangular panels. They can be moved by electric motors and cables to focus on different parts of the universe, concentrate the radio waves reaching the Earth and reflect those signals on receiving equipment suspended above. From there, the signals are channeled to other equipment that allows scientists to make sense of what’s being picked up. 

Stargazing has intrigued mankind since the beginning of time but the philosophers and legislators of ancient China have perpetuated the longest continuous tradition of astronomy. About 3,500 years ago, the court astronomers carved pictograms of cosmic events onto tortoise shells and ox bones. One shell recorded a solar eclipse around 250 B.C.  From these “oracle bones,” Chinese scholars invoked the enigmatic power of the cosmos to formulate “The Mandate of Heaven,” not only bestowing divinity on the emperors but equally defending revolution as the way to change dynasties if the “Heavenly Son” proved to be an unjust emperor. In the past 2,200 years, this mystic power of the omniscient stars rationalized the revolutions that toppled 11 major dynasties and numerous Periods of Disunity.   

Today, China is experiencing a period of political and financial unity, and astronomy is just one of its signs. In August, The Heavenly Eye telescope, which was put into service in September 2016, detected two new pulsars – one that is 4,100 light-years from Earth and the other 16,000 light-years away. On Oct. 10, to the amazement of world astronomers, The Eye detected several dozen more pulsars, which resemble twinkling stars. On Oct.16, it detected gravitational waves, which, according to scientists, were produced by the collision of two rapidly spinning neutron stars.

Remarkably, the discovery of gravitational waves produced by pulsars gave Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, developed a century ago, a spectacular endorsement. Astronomers claim the amazing atmospheric undulations generated by pulsars, the cosmic equivalent of ripples produced by tossing a pebble into a pond, stretch the fabric of space-time itself. 

Astronomers also predict researchers on extraterrestrial life will be the philosophers of the future. The search for intelligence life in the universe was often scoffed at as a kind of religious mysticism or science fiction. A quarter-century ago, Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada advocated the defunding of America’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, saying he hoped it would “be the end of Martian hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.”  This is probably one reason why China, not the United States, was the first to build the largest filled-aperture telescope on Earth, with SETI as a core scientific goal, bringing earthlings a clearer understanding of the infinite realm of the stars in the universe. 

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