China will relocate more than 9,000 people and give each of them $1,800 before turning on the world’s largest radio telescope this year in its bid to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life.
Work on the massive radio telescope (pictured), whose composite "dish" is half a kilometre in diameter, began in the south-western province of Guizhou in 2011 and is expected to be finished in September.
When activated, the 1.2bn yuan ($184m) device, comprising 4,450 triangular panels, will reflect radio signals from distant parts of the universe towards a 30-tonne retina.
The director-general of the Chinese Astronomical Society, Wu Xiangping, told state news agency Xinhua last year that the telescope would help scientists "search for intelligent life outside of the galaxy and explore the origins of the universe".
A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe. It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm,– Nan Rendong, chief scientist at FAST
But to help it work better, people living within a 5-km radius of the telescope would be "evacuated", according to a request by provincial authorities to the central government.
The Guizhou Provincial Committee said the evacuation was needed to create a "sound electromagnetic wave environment", Xinhua reported this week.
Approximately 9,110 residents in two counties would be relocated to four settlements by the end of September, said Li Yuecheng, secretary-general of the provincial committee.
Each affected resident will get 12,000 yuan ($1,841) from the provincial reservoir and eco-migration bureau, while each ethnic minority household with housing difficulties will get 10,000 yuan from the provincial ethnic and religious committee, said the report.
‘Cicadas in a thunderstorm’
Experts selected the site in Pingtang County back in 2007 because it featured an excellent natural basin.
The telescope – nicknamed FAST, short for ‘Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope’ – will dwarf the world’s current largest, the 305-m-diameter radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in the US territory of Puerto Rico.
Its size determines how deeply into the heavens it can listen.
"A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe," Nan Rendong, chief scientist at FAST, told Xinhua.
"It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm," he added.
But while local authorities are planning to move locals out to help FAST work better, there had been plans to move people in by building new towns around the telescope to develop "astronomical tourism".
Newspaper China Daily reported in 2013 that local governments were planning to invest 4.9 billion yuan ($799m at the time) in turning the region into a global destination for star-gazers.
"The region will become a main astronomical tourism zone worldwide," Zhang Xiaoping, deputy director of the Guizhou Development and Reform Commission, told the newspaper at the time.
"We will construct an astronomical geopark and research and education center, and build new town houses and tourism highways," he said.
Zhang said he expected the new tourism towns to bring a total economic return of 30 billion yuan in the coming years, with 60 percent coming directly from tourism.
Photograph: China’s vast radio telescope being assembled in Guizhou Province in November 2015. It is scheduled to be finished in September 2016 (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)