World's Biggest Radio Telescope Is Up And Running In China : Parallels The new telescope will help discover new galaxies and will observe the hydrogen clouds from which stars and planets are born. But not everyone's happy. 9,000 locals were displaced to make room for it.
NPR logo

In Southwest China, A 'Very Large Eyeball' Peers Into Deep Space

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/501619343/502274873" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In Southwest China, A 'Very Large Eyeball' Peers Into Deep Space

In Southwest China, A 'Very Large Eyeball' Peers Into Deep Space

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/501619343/502274873" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For centuries before the modern age, China was on the cutting edge of science. The country is investing heavily today to try to reclaim some of that former glory. And one example is the world's largest radio telescope. NPR's Anthony Kuhn paid it a visit.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: From above, the telescope looks like a giant, silver dish nestled among the jagged, green mountains of southwest China's Guizhou Province. I'm standing on the edge of it with the project's lead scientist, Zhu Ming.

ZHU MING: (Through interpreter) The circular beam we're looking at is a support structure. It supports a network of more than 2,000 cables. The cables are covered with more than 4,400 panels. The cables can be pulled to adjust the shape of the dish.

KUHN: That allows it to track an object as the Earth turns. It can stay fixed on a certain object that it's looking at like a pulsar or something. Is that right?

ZHU: Yes.

KUHN: Scientists used satellites to scour the country for just the right location for the dish, Zhu says.

ZHU: (Through interpreter) You've got a town just two or three miles from here. And the signals from the cellphones, microwave ovens, cars, cameras and digital devices there would all be too great, if not for these mountains.

KUHN: Now I get it. The natural environment here is sort of like a giant egg cup. You've got these beautiful, karst mountains blocking out all the interference, all the noise, all the radiation. Wow, I'm really hearing that sound of the wind.

ZHU: Yes (laughter).

KUHN: It's an amazing sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING THROUGH RADIO TELESCOPE)

KUHN: The dish's aluminum panels are full of holes. When the wind blows through them, it generates an eerie, buzzing roar that seems straight out of a sci-fi flick soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING THROUGH RADIO TELESCOPE)

KUHN: Not far from the dish is its control center. Here, supercomputers process the data, the radio traffic of the universe picked up by the telescope. Zhu Ming says that the telescope will help discover thousands of new galaxies and observe the hydrogen clouds from which stars and planets are born. Before that, though, a lot of work is required to calibrate and focus the telescope. While they do that, they'll be observing a special kind of star called a pulsar.

ZHU: (Through interpreter) For our test observations, we're looking at pulsars. Pulsars pulsate at precise intervals, like a light in a lighthouse.

KUHN: That allows you to both measure time and space.

ZHU: Yeah.

KUHN: Right? It helps you to calculate distances and positions and to look backward in time...

ZHU: Yes.

KUHN: ...To see what the universe used to look like.

ZHU: Yes.

KUHN: Scientists will also use the telescope to study gravitational radiation and other phenomena that could hold the key to time travel. They'll also scan the universe for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

PETER QUINN: It's obviously a very large eyeball.

KUHN: Peter Quinn is the director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at the University of Western Australia, which helped build the telescope's receivers. He and other foreign scientists will have access to some of the project's data. Quinn says that telescope-building has recently entered a golden age, producing tools that are many times more powerful than those of a generation or so ago. But he adds that making scientific breakthroughs requires more than just technology; it also takes human curiosity and a good bit of luck.

QUINN: The most enduring characteristic of telescopes seems to be that they always find things we don't expect.

KUHN: One unexpected consequence is that in order to scan the heavens, local government had to move about 9,000 people here on Earth. Farmer Shen Minghua lives in a village just outside the entrance to the telescope. He says the local government is giving residents the lowest possible compensation for their land. He says some who did not cooperate were beaten or jailed.

SHEN MINGHUA: (Through interpreter) Our ancestors have lived here for generations. Now they've built this observatory here. It's good for the nation, but not for us ordinary folks. Folks have to move elsewhere. They have no homes and no way to make a living.

KUHN: The farmers are challenging their relocation in court. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Pingtang County, Guizhou Province.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.