A few days ago we wrote about the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The newest SETI project is in the news because the Chinese government can’t find anyone to manage it. That is in spite of the fact that the chief scientist-manager will receive a $1.2 million-dollar salary plus housing. The job is to supervise the operation of the world’s largest “filled aperture” radio telescope.
This new telescope is designed to search for radio signals from intelligent life in the universe up to 1,000 light-years away as well as to monitor pulsars and detect interstellar molecules. Its name is Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) because it is 500 meters (1600 feet) in diameter. It was constructed in a natural basin in southwest China at the cost of $180 million dollars. Since FAST can’t be turned to receive signals from different directions, it is made up of 4450 metal panels that can be rotated independently to pinpoint different areas of space. Construction has been going on since 2011, and it’s in the testing stage now.
Sixty-five people lived in a village located in the valley where FAST was built. The Chinese government evicted them. Also, to prevent interference from electronic devices in the area, more than 9,000 residents within 5 km (3.1 miles) of the site were also relocated. They were given about $1800 each for relocating. About 500 families tried to sue over the demolition of their homes without adequate compensation. In the end, the Chinese government spent about $269 million to relocate the previous residents in addition to the cost of the telescope.
Now China is searching the world to find someone to manage the operation of FAST. So far they have had no success in spite of the large salary. There are several reasons why they haven’t filled the job. For one thing, the area is very remote and doesn’t have much to offer in the way of entertainment or activities. Also, because of the failure rate of the mirror activators, any scientist who wants to spend time in research using the telescope may end up mostly dealing with technical problems. In addition to those factors, the Chinese government has placed very high requirements on potential job applicants. With the educational and experience requirements, there may be only a handful of qualified candidates in the world.
China will eventually find someone to manage FAST. Calibration of the radio telescope is projected to take three years. Then the operation will require hundreds of astronomers and the SETI project will spend years and large sums of money searching for intelligent life in the universe. We have said many times before that whether life exists anywhere else in the universe has nothing to do with whether God exists. God could choose to create life anywhere, but so far the effort to find signs of intelligent life beyond our planet has not been promising.
What if they get this new radio telescope working and receive a signal from intelligent beings 1000 light-years away? That message would have been sent out 1000 years ago. If we send a “Hello” message back to them, it will arrive 1000 years later. A two-way conversation under those conditions would be slower than postal mail. In the meantime, thousands of people have lost their homes, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent plus millions more will be spent to continue the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
–Roland Earnst © 2017