Big toys of Beijing’s dream of prestige in frontier physics

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A model of the China Neutron Source facility. Photo: Xinhua

A 2.3 billion yuan (US$361 million) multi-disciplinary research facility centered on a powerful pulsed neutron source is up and running some 18 meters beneath a picturesque forest park in Dongguan, a boom town in southern China’s  Guangdong province less than 100 kilometers north of Hong Kong.

The facility, the largest science infrastructure in use in China and the fourth neutron source facility globally, is administered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics to pursue and advance studies in a plethora of fields such as materials science, life science, physics, chemistry and new energy, as well as resources and environment.

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A glimpse of the tube of the synchrotron some 18 meters underground. Photo: Handout
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Robotic arms used to handle high-temperature, radioactive parts of the synchrotron. Photo: Xinhua

A public tour of the state-of-the-art facility includes a peep into its control center as well as the maze-like underground linac and the rapid cycling synchrotron, of which 96% of the components were reportedly sourced domestically.

Chinese papers reveal that the initial power of the gigantic synchrotron was 120 kilowatts, readily able to be quadrupled by upgrading the linear accelerator and components of the synchrotron.

Another quantum leap in R&D hardware is the Micius satellite catapulted into orbit in 2016.

Named after Mozi, a prominent philosopher during the Warring States period of 475-221 BC, Micius was launched in August 2016 and is said to be the world’s first quantum satellite. Its initial task was to test quantum key distribution.

Lead scientist Pan Jianwei of the University of Science and Technology of China, an institute in Hefei, Anhui province, developed a secure relay through Micius and then created a secret key connecting Beijing and Vienna, 7,600 kilometers apart, in what was lauded as a giant step toward a global space-based quantum internet. Xinhua hailed the experiment as a “tour de force.”

A future constellation of satellites of the same type will form the backbone of an ultrafast, “unhackable” communication network based on quantum cryptography.

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Cover of the June 2017 issue of Science that featured the Chinese quantum communications satellite.

Pan was quoted as saying that Beijing would set aside no less than US$2 billion for quantum research and experiments in the next five years.

The city of Jinan, capital of northern China’s Shandong province, will become the hub of these quantum communications. A regional network is already operating for the use of local government, as well as the nearby headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army’s Northern Theater Command Ground Force.

The city also straddles the 2,000km Beijing-Shanghai quantum line, which was inaugurated in September.

Another landmark structure symbolizing China’s quest for world-class stature in astronomy as well as the search for aliens is the dish-shaped, aluminum-covered Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, the largest of its kind worldwide, that has been scanning the sky from a lush cradle in the Karst basin in Guizhou province.

Tourists flock to the dish-shaped giant telescope located in remote Guizhou province. The FAST is built to look for and analyze interstellar radio signals. Photo: Handout

Tourists flock to the dish-shaped giant telescope located in remote Guizhou province. The FAST is built to look for and analyze interstellar radio signals. Photo: Handout

FAST achieved its “first light” (astronomy jargon for first use) in September 2016 and started looking for pulsars and interstellar molecules by detecting signals from as far away as 1,000 light-years, which may in turn yield clues about how the universe first formed, and possibly evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Xinhua has also revealed that Beijing is going to shell out billions of yuan in one of the least populated swaths of land in the world for an observation facility on an elevated slope some 5,250 meters above sea level in Ngari prefecture in western Tibet, to listen to the remnant of electromagnetic radiation – also called cosmic microwave background – from “the Big Bang,” a term referring to the birth of the universe as we know it.

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