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Planned extension to China's FAST telescope to search for extraterrestrial life

(People's Daily Online)    11:28, August 02, 2019

China plans to build an extension on its Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) to search an area of up to 100 lightyears from earth, for planets with magnetic fields similar to ours. The aim? To find extraterrestrial life, Science and Technology Daily reported on Thursday.

"Though FAST is the most sensitive radio telescope in the world, its resolution is not good enough to observe extrasolar planets, due to the limitation of its caliber. We hope to build a FAST extension matrix which can help increase the spatial resolution of FAST by 10 to 100 times," said Li Di, a researcher at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and chief scientist of FAST.

According to Li, they plan to lay an intensive network around the current FAST spherical surface with 5-meter caliber antenna and simplified receiving unit, to extend the effective baseline from the present 300 meters to dozens of kilometers.

To help cut costs, designers will not add a digital signal processing device in each unit of the extension matrix. Instead, the electric signal received will be directly transmitted to FAST's master processor via optical fiber, disclosed Li. He explained that this would also improve the response performance of FAST.

As soon as FAST receives an initial radio signal from another planet, it will open a new window of extrasolar habitable planet exploration. "As such searches are carried out in a large area, it might reach a conclusion that suggests magnetic fields are ubiquitous on extrasolar planets," said Li.

Li noted that although the magnetic field is not the only condition for the existence of extraterrestrial life, it is an essential factor that protects life from the harsh cosmic environment.

Increasingly diversified and detailed detection of magnetic fields on extrasolar planets in the future will change people's knowledge about extraterrestrial life, and even give impetus to the search for intelligent life and alien civilizations, according to Li.

"It would be unbelievable if no extraterrestrial life is detected in the near future," said Li. He reasons that life exists in various extreme conditions on the earth, and people have discovered the essential elements for life as well as complex molecules in outer space. As he puts it, if everything necessary for life, such as a fixed star, planet, magnetic field, water, and enough time, exist on an extrasolar planet, why wouldn't there be extraterrestrial life?

FAST is about to take the first step towards this type of exploration, and the building of the extension matrix will be finished in the next 3 to 4 years. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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