The world’s largest radio telescope, in southwestern Guizhou (貴州) province, is joining an international search for extraterrestrial intelligence focused on a strange, flickering star that has sparked unprecedented curiosity in recent months.
Andrew Siemion, director of the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) Research Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, said in October that the centre had entered into a partnership with the FAST radio telescope in the hunt for evidence of advanced civilisation in space.
The 1.2b yuan (HK$1.37 billion) FAST – short for five-hundred-metre aperture spherical telescope – has a dish bigger than 30 soccer fields and a diameter almost 200 metres greater than the world’s second-biggest radio telescope, operated by the United States at Arecibo in Puerto Rico.
The Berkeley centre’s Breakthrough Listen project, a US$100 million initiative founded last year by internet investor Yuri Milner to conduct a 10-year search for intelligent life in space, is leading the hunt.
“Breakthrough Listen recently entered into a partnership with FAST and the National Astronomical Observatory of China,” which built and operates the telescope, said Siemion, who is also a co-director of Breakthrough Listen.
In late October, Breakthrough Listen began targeting the flickering star – unofficially known as Tabby’s star – which is about 1,500 light years from earth in the constellation Cygnus, using the 100-metre-wide Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, US.
Officially called KIC 8462852, it was first flagged in September 2015 by American astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, then a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University and now an assistant professor at Louisiana State University.
Observations by Nasa’s Kepler space telescope showed the star dimming considerably and irregularly for days at a time – unlike the dimming of other stars caused by planets or comets.
China’s giant radio telescope tunes in to the universe
But the pattern was a good match for the blocking that would be caused by a Dyson structure, a massive array of solar collectors that could be built by a highly developed civilisation to surround a star to capture energy, first proposed by American physicist Freeman Dyson in 1960.
And that drew the attention of telescopes around the world.
“Everyone, every SETI programme telescope, I mean every astronomer that has any kind of telescope in any wavelength that can see Tabby’s star has looked at it,” Siemion said. “It’s been looked at with Hubble [Space Telescope], it’s been looked at with Keck [Observatory in Hawaii], it’s been looked at in the infrared and radio and high-energy [spectrums] and every possible thing you can imagine, including a whole range of SETI experiments. Nothing has been found.” [….]