Search for Aliens: Why China Will Find Them First

Arecibo After Maria
The Arecibo Observatory is seen after it was hit by Hurricane Maria on September 29 in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The telescope used to be the largest of its kind. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The biggest radio telescope in the world is dedicated to looking for extraterrestrial life—and if it finds something, sharing that information will be up to the Chinese government.

Ross Andersen's feature in The Atlantic's December issue goes through all of the reasons and the history influencing China's rise as an alien-scouting superpower. A few factors cited include the country's heavy investment in scientific research, especially since the 1980s.

In 2016, China finished building the biggest radio telescope of its kind, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST). In August, the government was offering a $1.9 million grant to whoever takes the job as the site's chief director of scientific operation.

Like a regular radio, radio telescopes work because they scan for electromagnetic energy. Unlike a regular radio, which looks for energy sources from nearby stations on Earth, a radio telescope looks for signals coming from space. There are reasons other than aliens to look for radio signals from space; planets and stars can also emit radio signals. The signals from far-off celestial bodies are so, so tiny—but they're there.

China's 13th five-year plan, which was adopted in March 2016 and will be in effect until 2020, includes increasing spending on research and development to $1.2 trillion—at least 2.5 percent of the gross domestic product, according to a U.S. federal government analysis. Deep space exploration is one of the priorities for scientific spending, Science reported.

And this latest radio observatory isn't going to be China's last. The country plans to put one on the dark side of the moon, Andersen reported.

The U.S. used to have its own federally-funded SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. Some efforts even used the Arecibo telescope, based in Puerto Rico—which was the largest radio telescope in the world until the FAST dish came online. (Incidentally, the Arecibo telescope sustained minor damage during Hurricane Maria.)

There are nongovernmental efforts to find life, too. The University of California, Berkeley has a SETI@home program that allows individuals to "donate" their computing power to scientists analyzing data from telescopes to look for life.

There are also people who are working on what to say if we ever do find ourselves in the position to say something to an alien. An organization called METI—Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence—has brought together experts to figure out what the best thing to say would be. "Recognizing the profound implications of making contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, prior to transmission METI International will engage in broad consultation with experts from the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and other fields to encourage a responsible approach to sending messages," the organization's website states.

Though some messages have already been sent, Andersen notes in his piece that whether humanity should be DMing aliens at all is still controversial. But even with the FAST dish scanning, groups like METI still have time—no aliens so far.