The new telescope is located in Pingtang, in southwestern China's Guizhou province. The new telescope is located in Pingtang, in southwestern China's Guizhou province. The new telescope is located in Pingtang, in southwestern China's Guizhou province. (Photo: STR / AFP/Getty Images)

Our search for aliens just got a $170 million boost

With the largest single dish radio telescope in the world, scientists can now pick up radio waves from billions of light years away.

For the scores of scientists listening for signs of extraterrestrials in outer space, their job just got a tad easier. A massive new telescope in China just went online that will help humanity search for alien life.

Think of the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope – known by the acronym FAST – as a giant listening device. Astronomers with the Breakthrough Listen initiative, a $100 million project seeking intelligent alien life, will use the new telescope. Turned on in 2016, it has already identified more than 100 new pulsars. After a three-year testing period, it became officially operational this month. The researchers have previously used large telescopes in places like West Virginia, Hawaii and Puerto Rico – all of which maxed out at around 300 meters. At 500 meters, the new telescope is roughly the size of 30 football fields.

The Israel-born Dr. Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard's Astronomy department, is an advisor on the Breakthrough Listen project. "This telescope could definitely help in the search for artificial radio signals from space," he told From The Grapevine, but cautioned that it could take years for it be fully up and running at its optimal performance.

For Loeb, the bigger question is not the tools we use on Earth to listen for aliens, but what types of technologies those aliens are using to communicate with us. "Ultimately, the success of the search depends mostly on what signals are out there for us to find," Loeb explained. He pointed out that it's possible that searching for radio signals may be an outmoded method. Loeb, like many in his field, believes that technology invented by aliens is likely far superior to that of humans. "Our own civilization is transmitting much weaker radio signals now than it did 50 years ago, because of the development of better technologies for communication and information gathering, such as fiber optics and satellites," he said. "It is therefore possible that detectable radio signals characterize a relatively narrow window in the history of advanced technological civilization."

Finding aliens, finding ourselves

Time magazine selected Dr. Avi Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. Time magazine selected Dr. Avi Loeb as one of the 25 most influential people in space. (Photo: Jemal Countess / Getty Images)

In 1935, Albert Einstein told an aspiring teenage astronomer that he believed there was a “natural presumption that life in some form may not be unique to our planet.” Loeb’s search for alien life takes Einstein’s presumption to the next level. It’s less a theoretical, cosmic quest to answer an age-old question: Are we alone? But for Loeb, it is more existential.

He knows that our time on Earth is finite. Climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet. Some day, he noted, the sun will eventually boil the oceans to the point where we'll be forced to find a new home. Even beyond the effects of global warming, there could be a nuclear war or a catastrophic asteroid impact. None of this will happen tomorrow, or perhaps not even in the next century. But the mild-mannered 58-year-old knows it will happen at some point. “People may prefer to ignore it. You could ignore any danger in the future, but eventually it will come to haunt you because nature does not care about what we think and what we ignore. The reality will come to haunt us.”

That is why finding a new Earth is on his agenda. He wants to explore the universe for a planet that is hospitable to life and ask the aliens if we can join them and move in. Livable planets just outside our solar system have already been discovered.

It’s possible that aliens are already living there, which is why Loeb is so eager to find them. In 2017, just two years after Breakthrough Listen launched, the project had already seen its first success. Loeb and his team used a massive telescope in West Virginia to examine an odd oblong-shaped mystery item floating through space. Called Oumuamua, it's believed to be the first interstellar object detected passing through our solar system. In 2019, Loeb spotted a second. To keep the fast pace of discovery moving, the group publicly releases everything it finds. In June 2019, it dropped the largest data dump of its kind, allowing scientists from across the globe to parse the findings.

The Green Bank Telescope in the Allegheny Mountains of W. Virginia is the the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. (Photo: Jamiev_03 / Flickr)

The new FAST satellite in China, which cost $170 million to construct, could further expedite their findings. It can ingest about 38 gigabytes of data every second, something that would have taken previous satellites weeks to do. Up until now, Breakthrough Listen has observed more than 1,300 relatively nearby stars over the course of just a few years, listening for any signs of radio waves that would signal the presence of technologically advanced aliens. This only amounts to a tiny sliver of what could be studied. If you compare the volume of space we're able to search for signs of advanced technology to the volume of the Earth's oceans, then "so far since 1960, we've searched about one hot tub's worth of the ocean," said Jill Tarter, a longtime alien researcher.

As for Loeb, he is cautiously optimistic about the new satellite. Yes, it can gather a stunning amount of information, but what if nothing is out there? "If there are no fish in the sea, a fisherman will find nothing irrespective of how many technological advances are implemented into the fishing rod," he said.

Loeb grew up on a farm in central Israel and thought he wanted to be a philosopher rather than a scientist. Sometimes, when the Harvard astronomer looks into the abyss in the vast sky above, he is seeking celestial proof for something deeper. “The thoughts about outer space are often a reflection on our inner space,” Loeb said. “We learn about ourselves from imagining what may be lurking out there."


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Our search for aliens just got a $170 million boost
With the largest telescope in the world, scientists can pick up radio waves from billions of light years away. Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb weighs in.