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New biggest radio telescope to help detect alien signals

China plans to build another big radio telescope that could boost the quest to determine if we're alone in the universe, and solve other long-standing mysteries.

China's Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope is being used to watch the galaxies and listen for possible intelligent civilizations beyond our solar system.

China plans to amp up its ability to search for aliens, dark matter, gravitational waves and other mysteries of the universe by building the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. 

The country already hosts the world's largest radio telescope, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). It and Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory are basically huge stationary dishes built into the landscape. But fully steerable radio telescopes like the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia (currently the largest of the type) can be moved and rotated to aim at specific targets.

China approved plans for the new telescope this week. It will be located in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and known as the Xingjiang Qitai 110m Radio Telescope (QTT). It will have a steerable dish 10 percent larger in diameter than that of the Green Bank observatory with the ability to cover 75 percent of the sky.

"The antenna, the world's largest, will be able to trace the origins of any signals received," Song Huagang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

FAST can cover some frequencies that are lower than what QTT is able to cover, but the two huge radio telescopes will also have overlapping coverage in the range between around 150 MHz and 3 GHz.

Doug Vakoch of METI International, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and develops potential messages for E.T., said this overlap is significant because it includes the so-called "water hole" of particular interest to SETI researchers.

"It's a quiet space between prominent spectral lines created by hydrogen and hydroxyl, the constituents of water that is so central to life on Earth," he explained via email. "The partially overlapping frequency range of the QTT and FAST means that the detection of a candidate signal by one telescope can be followed up immediately by the other instrument, assuming the data is being analyzed in real time."

But the value of QTT, Vakoch adds, may not be so much in its ability to search for signs of distant advanced civilizations, but in how it will contribute to unraveling other natural mysteries of the universe. During its tria testing phase, FAST already managed to discover two pulsars

We'll still have to wait to see how effective the tag-team operation of FAST and the QTT will be at picking up alien signals and who knows what else, though: QTT isn't scheduled to go into operation until 2023.

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