China displaces thousands for world’s largest radio telescope
HUMANITY’S best bet at detecting aliens is a giant silver Chinese dish the size of 30 football fields – one that simultaneously showcases Beijing’s abilities to deploy cutting-edge technologies and ignore objectors’ ri ghts as it seeks global prominence.
The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in the country’s southwest, which was launched in September and cost 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million) to build, is the largest radio telescope in the world.
Once fully operational, FAST will be able to peer deeper into space than ever before, examining pulsars, dark matter and gravitational waves, and searching for signs of life.
Authorities also hope it will bring tourist dollars to the province of Guizhou, one of the poorest regions in China.
But it comes at the cost of forcibly displacing about 9000 villagers who called the site in Pingtang county their home.
Many were outraged at being forced to leave the valley surrounded by forested karst hills and hundreds of families are now suing the government, with some cases being heard this week.
China built FAST as part of efforts to take on international rivals and raise its embarrassingly low tally of Nobel Prizes, explained Peng Bo, director of China’s National Astronomical Observatories, which oversees the telescope.
The 500-metre-wide (1640 feet) dish dwarfs its nearest competitor, the United State’s Puerto Rico-based Arecibo telescope, which is only 305 metres across.
The world’s most populous country and second-largest economy has so far only won one scientific Nobel, awarded last year to chemist Tu Youyou for medicine.
FAST’s receivers are more sensitive than any previous radio-telescope, and its pioneering technology can change the shape of the dish to track celestial objects as the Earth revolves around the sun.
It could catalogue as many pulsars in a year as had been found in the past 50, Mr Peng said. But he acknowledged that FAST will be overtaken by the larger Square Kilometre Array telescope in South Africa and Australia, which will be built over the next decade.
FAST needs a five kilometre-wide (three miles) “radio silence” buffer zone around it with electronics banned in order to reduce interference with the sky’s much fainter frequencies.
Relocated residents would “enjoy better living standards”, the official Xinhua news agency said when the dish was completed in July.
But villagers allege land grabs without compensation, forced demolitions and unlawful detentions, and up to 500 families are suing the Pingtang county government.
Meng Xiujun, whose Elites Law Firm in the southern city of Guang
zhou is handling most of the cases, said officials tried to intimidate him, telling him he should “see the bigger picture for a key national project”.
But he told AFP: “This isn’t just a matter of economic interests –once you start asking average citizens to kneel down or beat them, it becomes about human rights and problems with China’s rule of law.” –