Cut into the hills in south China, about 2,000km from Beijing, is the world’s largest telescope.
It’s not one of those telescopes that you look through, the sort that non-science minds like mine think of as telescopes. It’s a radio telescope. Effectively it’s a massive dish (alright, cosmos lovers, there is unquestionably a more informed way to describe it, but I’m hardly Carl Sagan). It’s 500 metres in diameter. That’s very, very big.
It’s sitting there, ready to move a little to focus better, to pick up radio signals, signs from deep space, both of the origins of our universe and, more interestingly, really, of other life.
So far, it’s picked up evidence of a few new pulsars. And after I googled pulsars I felt that, frankly, our big Chinese telescope could do with pulling its socks up. Of course, space is pretty big, and it could take a while for messages to hit us, but still.
I find dipping into the vast amount of knowledge that is available to us, just to swim around in it, is refreshing
More interesting is what is going the other way. We are leaking noise. The Earth is a big transmitter, sending radio and TV waves out into the great wide yonder. Loads of them. It’s not intentional, they just head out and up. We’ve been doing this since Marconi got his act together a bit over a century ago. And scientists say that these first signals are around 100 light years away now. In space terms, of course, this is basically next door. It’s also, curiously, not far from HD 186302. That’s the snappy name for our sun’s twin.
Experts believe that this star was created from the same gas cloud that birthed our sun. And given how we came along, it’s not totally out of the question that up there is another life form. And around now, they’re beginning to receive faint radio signals, which when decoded will tell them about us.