August 9, 2022

The 400-year-old quest for extraterrestrial life

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ncs_modified20161003110952maxw640imageversiondefaultar-161009804By Jonathan Gornall From The National

It is, perhaps, a telling observation that the two tools that first gave human beings the ability to explore the world about them in scientific detail, at both the universal and microscopic level, were invented at about the same time.

On October 2, 1608, 408 years ago, Hans Lippershey, a German-born grinder of lenses and maker of spectacles from Middelburg in The Netherlands, made the first recorded application to patent an instrument “for seeing things far away as if they were near by”.

History credits his out-patented rival Zacharias Janssen, who was from the same town and is also believed to have been working on a telescope, with the invention of the microscope instead.

As described in the documents filed with the parliament of The Hague, Lippershey’s invention was a relatively crude device. A tube of about 4 centimetres in diameter and 50cm long was fitted with a convex lens at the front and a concave lens at the eyepiece, and magnified objects fourfold.

Crude or not, in intention if not scope this was the ancestral forebear of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, which began operating in China this week.

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (Fast), a true wonder of the age of radio astronomy, is the latest and most advanced expression yet of mankind’s curiosity about the universe and our place in it.

Built in the mountainous region of Guizhou in southwest China at a cost of US$180 million (Dh661m), the imposing Fast employs no lenses. The most powerful terrestrial telescopes pointed at the stars today are scouring wavelengths far beyond the electromagnetic spectrum visible to the human eye. Fast is focused on a narrow band of wavelengths, between 70MHz and 3GHz, straddling very high, ultra high and super high radio frequencies.
What this means is that its 500-metre dish, twice as sensitive and up to 10 times as fast as its nearest rival, the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, is perfectly positioned and attuned to collect a whole range of data from a universe which, despite our leaps in science, remains 96 per cent theoretical.

Fast is likely to broaden our knowledge of everything from pulsars – so far, only 3 per cent of an estimated 60,000 in the galaxy have been found, and the promised discovery of more and weaker types could alter our understanding of how the universe functions – to the contentious concepts of dark matter and dark galaxies.

It could even solve the so-called “small-scale crisis” that is troubling the otherwise widely accepted cosmological model of how our universe evolved and continues to function. This model is based on theories of “cold dark matter” and “dark energy”; problematically, some observations appear to show that on a small scale – in smaller galaxies – the model appears less convincing. One way or the other, Fast could soon resolve the debate.

But it is Fast’s “front page” role that is, predictably, attracting all the headlines – the search for signals from extra-terrestrial life. China claims that Fast, being able to scan up to a million stars, across a broader arc of sky, in a fraction of the time its rivals require to scan only thousands, will outgun all other arrays currently scouring space for signs of intelligent life.

“Searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence is usually considered to be a high-risk task,” states the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, charged with raising the country’s scientific profile across a range of disciplines and the driving force behind the Fast project. “However, if it succeeds, it will overshadow all other scientific achievements of mankind.”

IMAGE: The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope in Pingtang, China. AFP

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