FAST: A Powerful Tool to Look for Alien Life 3 Billion Light Years Away?

For centuries, perhaps since humankind first looked up at the star-cluttered sky, we have wondered, “Are we alone?” We may now have evidence that there is something, or someone, lurking in the deepest recesses of outer space, thanks to the 500-Meter FAST Radio Telescope (aka. Tianyan, “Eye of Heaven”).

With an active surface with more than 4450 adjustable panels, FAST was designed to detect “thousands of new pulsars, the first pulsar in a spiral galaxy beyond Milky Way, hundreds of thousands of new HI galaxies, dark galaxies that make up part of the so-called missing baryons, the most distant OH mega-masers, new component of the molecular universe, and many more” objects and energy-based phenomenon, according to the National Astronomical Observatories, under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The FAST radio telescope, located in a karst depression in Guizhou, China, is the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope.


Since its inception in 2007, FAST has detected numerous Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), which are “intense bursts of radio emission that have durations of milliseconds and exhibit the characteristic dispersion sweep of radio pulsars,” as reported by the publication Cosmos. Fraser Cain, the publisher of Universe Today, calls them “cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers,” because scientists are not quite sure of their origins. As Matt Williams of Universe Today points out, “While the origin of these bursts is still unknown, possible explanations range from hyper-magnetized neutron stars and black holes to cosmic strings left over from the Big Bang and even alien transmissions!”

FAST has made detecting FBRs much more efficient and effective. In fact, as reported in Universe Today, “according to research led by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAO/CAS), the observatory detected a total of 1,652 independent bursts from a single source in 47 days.”

More significantly, scientists think there are inherent patterns encoded in these FRBs, which makes it tempting to think they are artificially created. However, the reality is the picture is more complicated. Take for example FRB 121102, which was first detected in 2012. As Williams writes, “Pei Wang and the many institutions participating in the FAST telescope project have monitored FRB 121102’s and recorded several repeating bursts – one that consisted of 20 pulses in one day and another where 12 bursts were observed in two hours.”

By analyzing the patterns, Wang and his colleagues were able to eventually trace the signal to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away. To get a feel for that distance, imagine traveling in a rocket ship at  186,000 miles per second. Even at that speed, it would take you 3 billion years to get to that particular dwarf galaxy. Another perspective check: the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, so your travel time would be more than half the time of the earth’s existence. 

The implication, then is that any source that far away would have to be quite powerful to emit that kind of energy on such a periodic basis that we could regularly record its impulse. NASA’s Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) organization explains it this way:

“It’s more powerful than nearly anything you can name.  Indeed, if you assume that energy from the burst is radiated in all directions, then in an eyeblink this object let loose about as much energy as the Sun pumps out in a year.  Or if that doesn’t impress you, it’s enough energy to run humanity (at its present, prodigious burn rate) for ten trillion years.” 

And FRB 121102 is not the only one of its kind in the universe. FRB 010724, or the Lorimer Burst, was found in 2007,  by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. In fact, as notes, “Over 100 FRBs have been detected so far, originating in distant galaxies. What causes them is still a mystery, but theories include unusual phenomena associated with rapidly rotating neutron stars or merging black holes, or perhaps something that really is completely new to science.” 

Of course, some people theorize the origin is coming from an advanced alien life form. As Cosmos states, “The brightest burst exhibited a classic dispersion sweep and showed scatter-broadening with power law dependencies exactly like we’d expect from true extra-terrestrial sources of radio emission.” And there are some interesting theories about the exact source of these FBR. Some astronomers “have speculated that FRBs may be generated by powerful lasers designed to blast alien craft through space at high speeds.” In other words, a Millenium Falcon. 

However, don’t get too excited about potentially getting a message from ET (or Chewbacca). As the organization puts it, “There is also still the popular possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence being involved, but so far there is no direct evidence for that, and FRBs appear to be widely distributed among far-flung galaxies, making a natural explanation more likely.”

Still, none of that disproves the existence of alien life. So, for now, it’s still a legitimate question to ask, “Is anybody out there?” 

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