It could be the greatest discovery in the history of humankind.
The detection of an artificial signal from the cosmos would immediately transform the way we thought about everything. Whole philosophies would be overturned in an instant, religions challenged.
For us here today, finding evidence of aliens would be as great an intellectual shift as Christopher Columbus telling the Spanish crown “hey, I’ve found a whole new place for you to pillage!”
Unlike Columbus, though, it’s doubtful those who find ET will have a European name.
In the early decades of the 21st Century, the best observatory for locating extraterrestrial intelligence isn’t located in the US, or Europe, or Latin America…but in China.
Located in the mountains of Guizhou and known as the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (or FAST for short), it’s over twice as powerful as the next telescope in its class.
And that raises an interesting question. One that goes right to the heart of modern geopolitics.
What happens if China is first to discover alien life?
The idea that there are other worlds out there with their own civilizations has probably been around as long humans have been capable of looking at the stars and wondering “what if?”
But the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or SETI) begins much closer to our own time, in 1959.
That year, Cornell physicists Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison wrote a paper noting that the best way to signal a distant planet would be via radio waves falling in the range of 1 GHz to 10 GHz – frequencies high enough to overcome the universe’s background noise, yet low enough to not be absorbed by an Earth-like atmosphere.
It was the beginning of a long search for artificial signals from space, one that was considered promising enough in Washington to attract NASA funding.
At least, it did so for a while.
In 1993, Senator Richard Bryan – a Nevada Democrat – scored one of the easiest budgetary wins in Congressional history by pulling the plug on SETI, famously declaring he wanted “the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.”
Yet, even as listening for alien signals was being regulated to an X-Files plot point Stateside, across the Pacific, another great power was starting to look to the stars and wonder “what if?”
As one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, China has a long tradition of groundbreaking astronomy.
Way before Julius Caesar was even a naughty gleam in his great-grandpappy’s eye, the imperial court was documenting things like eclipses and comets.
But it would be a peculiarly modern phenomenon that kickstarted the Middle Kingdom’s newest search of the heavens.
Not long after Senator Bryan got in his zinger about Martian hunting, a group of international radio wave experts met in Japan to sound the alarm.
As digital communications exploded, there were fears that listening to the stars would become impossible.
The trouble with searching for ET is that radio waves are shockingly weak. Per the Atlantic’s Ross Andersen:
“The collective energy of all the radio waves caught by Earth’s observatories in a year is less than the kinetic energy released when a single snowflake comes softly to rest on bare soil.”
The experts’ feeling was that a super-large telescope was the only way to keep listening out. One that was not just unimaginably huge, but also isolated from civilization.
It was from these requirements that the FAST project was born.
Carved into a deep depression amid the remote Karst mountains of Guizhou, FAST has an area equivalent to 30 soccer pitches, and is said to be so deep it could hold 14 billion bowls of rice.
More-usefully, its surrounding mountains act as natural barriers, imposing a technological silence that could allow alien signals to be detected.
Not that anyone’s actually expecting a direct message.
When Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison came up with the idea of scanning for alien transmissions, they were assuming such transmissions would be intentional – the equivalent of our galactic neighbors leaning over the fence and hollering “yoohoo! Anyone home?!”
But such a holla is starting to seem increasingly unlikely.
As China’s preeminent science fiction author, Cixin Liu, has often stated, intentionally sending out signals into a potentially-hostile cosmos might be a death wish; an easy way to get your civilization destroyed by a superpredator.
So FAST will instead be looking for subtler signs of civilization. Signs known in the SETI community as technosignatures.
In the same way we can look at a dark horizon and guess a city lies beyond from the light pollution, so too can we monitor distant exoplanets for telltale traces of civilization.
These could be radar waves, like those used by aircraft on Earth, pulsing out into the cosmos, the sort of information leakage a civilization might not even know is happening.
Using an algorithm designed by SETI astronomer Andrew Siemion, FAST will scan billions of stars at billions of wavelengths for such clues.
It will also search for traces of colossal energy consumption.
A Kardashev Type II civilization is a hypothetical culture that has managed to harness the power of its entire home star.
One insanely cool plan for FAST is to have it train 19 individual beams onto our nearest galaxy Andromeda, and sequence the entire thing over 21 hexagonal images.
While even fairly powerful signals would be impossible to detect at this 2.5 million light year distance, FAST should be able to pick up the sort of energy leakage a Type II civilization might be responsible for.
So, that’s the sort of stuff FAST has recently begun scanning for on its lonely mountaintop. Which leads us to the million dollar question.
What happens if it actually finds something?
The first thing to note is that Beijing may not have much say in how things play out.
While FAST is a Chinese project, located in China, it’s not some isolated thing cut off from the wider world.
The observatory’s SETI search is conducted in cooperation with the Breakthrough Listen initiative, a Russian billionaire-backed, US-based, international project involving people all over the globe.
While Beijing has a natural tendency to secrecy, there’s a big difference between silencing – say – a handful of local doctors raising the alarm over a novel coronavirus, and a multinational team.
That’s if the CCP even wants to.
As FAST’s SETI project manager Zhang Tongjie has noted, his team would need cooperation from astronomers all over the planet to verify any signal and track its source.
Disclosure, then, is likely inevitable. So the question becomes: how will Beijing handle this?
Under Xi Jingping, the Chinese government has increasingly turned to committees known as Leading Small Group (or LSGs).
LSGs have powers that go across different branches of the bureaucracy, and exist for everything from border issues, to the economy, to dealing with Taiwan. A high-profile LSG to direct the response to first contact is inevitable.
How it proceeds from there may depend on the type of signal received.
If FAST hits upon a confirmed technosignature – also known as an “undirected” signal – the immediate problem would be one of messaging.
Handle things well, and the CCP appears important on the world stage, while also getting a propaganda boost at home.
Handle it badly, though, and things could really backfire.
Relations between China and the West – particularly the US – are bad enough that there’d likely be extreme skepticism.
Were the world to decide that China’s first contact announcement was a pile of panda poop, it would be a national embarrassment.
This is one reason why Beijing might be keen to get as many Americans and Europeans to help confirm the discovery. It would be the ultimate piece of ass-covering.
But that’s just an undirected signal.
If FAST detects a “directed” signal, one sent deliberately by an alien civilization and potentially carrying a message, things get a thousand times murkier.
Although Cixin Liu – who works with FAST – has said he believes any directed signal could only ever be a death monument; a powerful message fired out by a culture facing imminent extinction to let the universe know they once existed, no LSG is going to want to take that gamble.
As sci-fi as it sounds, a directed message could possibly contain information on hyper-advanced technology, technology every government on Earth would kill to get its hands on.
Fortunately, the potential for conflict might be smaller than that for cooperation.
Advanced as China is in some respects, it still lags behind its competitors.
Breakthrough Listen has developed a machine learning algorithm that’s capable identifying modulated – or artificial – signals with 95% accuracy, no matter how alien that modulation might be.
Beijing, by contrast, likely doesn’t have the know-how necessary to even confirm a signal is directed.
To stand a chance of cracking any message, international cooperation would likely be the only way.
The president of METI (sort of like SETI but with an emphasis on actively contacting ET rather than just listening) Douglas Vakoch certainly thinks so.
“In SETI,” he’s been quoted as saying, “international cooperation wins over competition.”
All of which bodes pretty well for China being first to find alien life.
While the White House might be annoyed at being pipped, and Xi Jinping might use the propaganda boost to help solidify his rule, the discovery could still herald the start of a new era in astronomy. One marked by huge spending increases and international work on a grand scale.
And there’s good reason to think that, if there are signals out there, they really will be heard first in Guizhou.
Following more conventional science work across 2020, the board controlling FAST finally allotted its first SETI-specific time slots to Zhang Tongjie in 2021.
So far, his team has a mere 17.5 hours to investigate the skies, spread over the entire year.
But Zhang is hopeful that this time will increase next year. And maybe again the year after that. Each precious minute allowing him to zero in on a candidate star system for life and listen for something – anything – that lets us know we are not alone.
If he succeeds, then hopefully his breakthrough won’t just be a victory for China…
…but for the entire human race.
Atlantic, China’s race to find aliens: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/12/what-happens-if-china-makes-first-contact/544131/
The Diplomat, what would happen if China made first contact? https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/what-would-happen-if-china-made-first-contact-with-extraterrestrials/
Space.com, is there a race to find extraterrestrial life? https://www.space.com/seti-race-alien-life-search-china.html
Sixth Tone, China’s top alien hunter is about to take his big shot: https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1006525/chinas-top-alien-hunter-is-about-to-take-his-big-shot
Sixth Tone, building FAST: https://interaction.sixthtone.com/feature/2020/telescope/
Universe Today, where FAST is searching: https://www.universetoday.com/148224/astronomers-will-be-able-to-use-the-worlds-biggest-radio-telescope-to-search-for-signals-from-extraterrestrial-civilizations/
SETI, a history of SETI: https://www.seti.org/history-of-seti