Chinese state media reported earlier this week that China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) will now be available for use by foreign scientists. According to Xinhua, based on a statement by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC), “All foreign applications will be evaluated, and the results will be announced on July 20. Observations by international users will begin in August.” This announcement confirms a January NAOC announcement that FAST would be open to astronomers around the world from April 1.
“The project will contribute Chinese wisdom to the construction of a community with a shared future for humanity, and strive to promote international sci-tech development and the progress of human civilization,” Xinhua quoted the statement as saying.
A separate January Xinhua story on FAST had quoted the telescope’s chief engineer as saying that 10 percent of observation time would be allocated to foreign scientists in the instrument’s first year of operations.
FAST, located in China’s Guizhou province, is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope and became fully operational January last year. While the telescope’s scientific uses are vast – and the instrument had already been used to discover 100 new pulsars (fast-spinning dead stars that emit radio waves) in its test phase — it is its potential use to discover extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) that has attracted considerable attention, including from geopolitical analysts given to (farfetched) scenario planning.
In October 2016, NAOC and the privately-funded Breakthrough Listen initiative – which funds projects for astronomers to use radio telescopes around the world to search for ETI – announced their collaboration at a ceremony in Beijing. According to a Breakthrough Initiatives statement on the occasion, researchers using FAST will collaborate with those using the Green Bank Telescope in the U.S. and the Parkes Observatory in Australia to “exchange observing plans, search methods and data.”
“Are we alone?’ is a question that unites us as a planet. And the quest to answer it should take place at a planetary level too. With this agreement, we are now searching for cosmic companions with three of the world’s biggest telescopes across three continents,” the Breakthrough Initiatives statement quoted its founder, controversial Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, as saying.
Milner drew considerable political attention amid allegations of Russian interference, including through social media, in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections when it came to light that he had made substantial investments in Facebook and Twitter on behalf of two Russian state entities. Milner also held stakes in a company co-owned by Jared Kushner, former White House advisor and son-in-law of former President Donald Trump.
In the past, U.S. astronomers have been enthusiastic about using the new Chinese radio telescope. A September 2019 Nature article quoted Maura McLaughlin, a radio astronomer at West Virginia University who studies extra-galactic pulsars, as saying that she was “super excited to be able to use the telescope.” However, with the dramatic deterioration of China-U.S. relations, American scientists involved in Chinese projects have come under considerable scrutiny amid allegations that they are – wittingly or not – being used by the Chinese Communist Party for technical and scientific espionage and intellectual property theft.
The arrest of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering professor in January on charges that he failed to adequately disclose his professional and financial ties with China added to an increasingly long list of experienced scientists who have been pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice for their China links.
This story has been updated to reflect Yuri Milner’s Israeli citizenship.