China has invested heavily in space science in recent years. The country started building the world’s most powerful radio telescope in 2011, edging the famed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico out of the top spot. In the fall of 2016, the telescope, the 500-Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) started making observations. It discovered two new pulsars in its first year of operations, and stands to be the leading instrument in the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life for years to come. In 2013, China landed a rover on the moon to poke around the surface. In June of this year, the Hard X-Ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT), a space observatory to study black holes and neutron stars, joined DAMPE in orbit.
The choice to invest in these particular fields have been very deliberate, according to Johnson-Freese. “China likes to be in the record books like everyone else,” she said, but the country can’t compete in areas of space exploration where the United States and other countries have long dominated. Instead, the Chinese have gone after realms in which no country has yet made a definitive triumph—like the search for dark matter.
In March 2016, a few months after DAMPE launched, Chang Jin, the mission’s chief scientist, said the search for the mysterious substance “tops the basic frontier projects of science listed by the United States, Europe, China, and Japan.”
“Any progress in dark-matter research will probably bring a breakthrough in physics,” Chang said.
While a breakthrough by the Chinese—a breakthrough by any group of scientists in any nation, really—would be cause of celebration in the astrophysical community, the merriment would feel thorny for some.“If China were to get a Nobel Prize in science, would that mean that the United States suddenly lost all of its lead? No,” Johnson-Freese said. “But I can see that there would be a lot of scientists who would say, well, this is going to become a Chinese matter of expertise. We’re going to depend on their science for us to do work.”
The isolation from a potential breakthrough likely will be felt most by American scientists, thanks to a law passed in 2011 that prohibits NASA from working with China’s space agency. There’s some irony there, given that one of the earlier experiments that noticed the same, strange blip in a survey of cosmic rays—the signal that scientists hope betrays the existence of dark matter—came from a collaboration between China, the United States, and other countries, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, mounted on the International Space Station just one month after Congress approved the ban.
China has found opportunities for collaboration elsewhere. Scientists from institutions in Geneva and Italy are working on the DAMPE mission, and Chinese officials are in talks with the European Space Agency about building an outpost on the moon together. “These congressional restrictions presume that forbidding contact will slow the pace of Chinese progress,” Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst and China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American nonprofit group, said in an email. “Projects like FAST and DAMPE prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that presumption is mistaken.