By EDWARD WONG
The Chinese government is relocating thousands of villagers to complete construction by September of the world’s biggest radio telescope, whose intended purpose is to detect signs of extraterrestrial life.
The telescope would be 500 meters, or 1,640 feet, in diameter, by far the largest of its kind in the world. It is called FAST, for Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, and costs an estimated 1.2 billion renminbi, or $184 million.
The mass relocation was announced on Tuesday in a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. The report said officials were relocating 2,029 families, a total of 9,110 people, living within a three-mile radius of the telescope in the area of Pingtang and Luodian Counties in the southwestern province of Guizhou.
Officials plan to give each person the equivalent of $1,800 for housing compensation, the report said. Guizhou is one of China’s poorest provinces.
Forced relocations for infrastructure projects are common across China, and the people being moved by officials often complain both of the eviction from their homes and inadequate compensation. The Three Gorges Dam displaced more than one million people along the Yangtze River, and the middle route of the gargantuan South-North Water Diversion Project has resulted in the relocation of 350,000 people to make way for a series of canals.
The Chinese government has announced ambitious plans for its space program, at a time when the American one is in retreat. China aims to put an astronaut on the moon and a space station in orbit. The FAST project is another important element in the larger plan.
The telescope is being built in a wide depression among karst hills. The depression is far from cities and ideal for picking up radio transmissions, the Xinhua report said. Scientists began looking for a site in 1994 and finally settled on the Dawodang depression.
If the truth is out there, then some Chinese scientists are confident that the giant telescope will find it. The current largest operational radio telescope is the 300-meter-diameter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but FAST in Guizhou will far surpass that.
Li Di, a chief scientist with the National Astronomical Observatories under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told China Daily last year that “with a larger signal receiving area and more flexibility, FAST will be able to scan two times more sky area than Arecibo, with three to five times higher sensitivity.”
Last November, scientists successfully tested the telescope’s “retina,” which weighs 33 tons and is suspended 460 to 525 feet above the reflector dish, which was half-finished at the time, China Daily reported.
The telescope has 4,500 panels that are mostly triangular and whose sides measure 36 feet, the report said. Those create a parabolic shape. The panels move and, by doing so, alter the shape of the antenna, which is supposed to pick up radio signals from distant corners of the universe. Those signals would then be reflected to a focal point.
Mr. Li told China Daily that engineers were aiming to install all the panels by this June and complete debugging by September.
“Ultimately, exploring the unknown is the nature of mankind,” he said, adding that it was “as visceral as feeding and clothing ourselves.”
“It drives us to a greater future,” he said.