For many years, space exploration seemed to be largely an American obsession. NASA was the only space agency on the planet with ambitious plans and
For many years, space exploration seemed to be largely an American obsession. NASA was the only space agency on the planet with ambitious plans and the consistent financing to carry them out.
But after first challenging the United States’ global economic hegemony, the planet’s most populous country has now extended the competition to the space race . While NASA is still preeminent, China’s space program, under the supervision of the People’s Liberation Army, has emerged as the second-most active on Earth.
China is currently launching more rockets into space than any country. Just recently, it became the first nation to land a rover on the far side of the Moon, and it has plans to construct a space station within the next few years. Eventually China hopes to land astronauts on the Moon as well, and these plans might explain why President Trump suddenly announced his intention to revive the Apollo program and land American astronauts on the Moon again in five years .
In the midst of all this space-oriented activity, China has been expanding its space exploration efforts in yet another way. The country’s space scientists have developed an intense interest in deep-space surveillance via telescope, and they have initiated multiple projects designed to elevate their standing in astronomy.
China Has Big Plans for Antarctica
China’s initial foray into the super-telescope game occurred in Antarctica.
In 2012, they installed the largest optical telescope that had yet to be deployed there, called the AST3-1 . This powerful 4.5-metre optical device will scan the skies in search of supernovas and other bodies of light and matter outside the solar system.
China installed this telescope at a location known as Dome A, which is the highest point on the Antarctic continent. This spot is perfect for observing deep space with no atmospheric interference. China installed another less powerful telescope on Dome A in 2008, and the success of that project convinced them to ramp up their efforts in the southern polar region.
“China started late in Antarctic astronomic exploration,” admitted Yuan Xiangyan, the deputy head of China’s Antarctic expedition team, before adding that his country “has made great progress. Since we took advantage of the observation point at Dome A, more countries have expressed willingness to cooperate with us.”
The plan all along was for China to install three powerful optical telescopes in the Dome A region. But a shortage of government funding has put the second and third stages of the project on hold. Once they’re ready to go online, these new telescopes will have infrared as well as optical detection capability, which would allow Chinese astronomers to study dark matter, dark energy and ongoing star formation inside gas clouds.
China Wants Astronomical Supremacy and it Wants it FAST
Not content to limit their pursuit of astronomical knowledge to the optical and infrared bands, China has made major investments in the area of radio astronomy. In 2016, they completed the construction and installation of the Five-hundred metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in southwestern China. As soon as it began functioning FAST immediately became the world’s biggest radio telescope, dwarfing in size the 300-metre telescope installed by the United States at Arecibo in Puerto Rico.
This impressively massive telescope will be used to track and catalog pulsars, search for elusive gravitational waves and dark matter, and look for planets circling stars throughout the Milky Way and other galaxies. Measuring fluctuations in radio wave activity makes all of these things possible. It also empowers the search for extraterrestrial life.
For a long time astronomers, have hypothesized that alien civilizations might advertise their presence by sending radio signals across space. All the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) projects have scanned the skies in search of unusual radio signals in patterned or repeating form, which could not be produced by natural processes.
Conceivably, powerful optical signals could be sent by such civilizations as well, and optical telescopes are also useful in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. But radio telescopes are still considered the best bet for finding evidence of faraway life, and the FAST telescope has pushed China to the forefront of this quest.
“FAST’s potential to discover an alien civilization will be five to ten times that of current equipment, as it can see farther and darker planets,” declared Peng Bo, the deputy director of the FAST project. The unmatched range of this new telescope raises the interesting possibility that alien radio signals might be detected even if they weren’t intentionally beamed across space, but were transmitted only as a byproduct of a civilization’s normal technological activity.
“We look not only for television signals, but also atomic bomb signals,” explained Li Di, the chief scientist at the FAST facility. “We’ll give full play to our imaginations when processing the signals. It’s a complete exploration, as we don’t know what an alien is like.”
Searching the Skies from the Tibetan Plateau
High-elevation areas offer the best observation conditions for telescopes. Consequently, China is moving fast to install multiple observatories on the high Tibetan plateau . Four large telescopes are planned, and the first one was completed in April of this year.
The Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) will study high-energy gamma rays, which are the most energetic photons traveling across the broad expanses of the universe. The origin of gamma rays is a mystery, and this new Chinese telescope will inspect neutron stars, supernovas and black holes to find evidence of gamma ray production and activity.
The other telescopes planned for extreme altitudes in Tibet will study a broad range of astronomical phenomena, including solar flares, coronal mass ejections, gravitational waves and the evolution of galaxies. The largest of these telescopes, called LOT (Large Optical Infrared Telescope), will be tasked to search for exoplanets (planets in other solar systems). This will represent a major step forward in Chinese astronomy, since the search for such planets —and especially for those that might support life—are currently a major preoccupation of planetary scientists across the globe.
Finding planets that might host living creatures is an indirect way of searching for life in the universe. China is clearly determined to become active participants in this exciting search.
Chinese Astronomy is Going into Orbit
In June 2019, China launched its first X-ray telescope (called Huiyan, which means ‘insight’ in Chinese) into orbit. This is the first space telescope of any type that China has deployed, and it will survey deep space in search of gamma rays, gravitational waves, neutron stars, pulsars, signs of supernovas, black holes and more. The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs X-ray signals, meaning that astronomers will only have access to detailed X-ray measurements if they are collected and transmitted from space.
“The only way to make original achievements is to construct our own observation instruments,” said Xiong Shaolin, from the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Now Chinese scientists have created this space telescope with its many unique advantages, and its quite possible we will discover new, strange and unexpected phenomena in the universe.”
China and the New Space Race
It is clear from the flurry of activity they’ve initiated that China is serious about attaining preeminence in astronomy, space science and space technology.
In each of its astronomical endeavors, China has spent liberally to develop and implement solutions using the most innovative and advanced technology. While their budget for space science does not match NASA’s, their reliance on sophisticated technology is allowing them to achieve maximum results from the funds they are investing.
Searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is not their only purpose. But their comprehensive and enthusiastic approach to interstellar exploration could make them the odds-on favourite to find conclusive proof of an alien civilization, assuming it will one day be found.
Of course, NASA will have something to say about this. But China is making it clear that we can no longer take United States dominance in space for granted. The new space race is on, and the nation declared the winner may be the one that acquires irrefutable evidence that life does indeed exist elsewhere in the universe.
Top image: Chinese space exploration. Credit: Marcos Silva / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde