A Giant Leap for Astronomy: Plans for a Moon-Sized Telescope: Moon Vision
The universe is an enormous, infinite space that fascinates and intrigues many people, particularly astronomers. Scientists have long been seeking ways to uncover more about the universe’s mysterious beginning, particularly the period known as the Dark Ages. In a significant development, researchers were recently granted a grant by the space agency to investigate the potential of constructing an array of antennas on the moon’s far side. Using minerals mined from the moon, they aim to create a 77-square-mile telescope, known as the FarView Observatory, which would enable astronomers to see what no other instrument can: a period before the stars when the universe was in the “Dark Ages.”
Jack Burns, a professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at CU Boulder, has been advocating for a radio telescope on the moon for 40 years. The FarView project he is part of will enable scientists to investigate a previously unexplored area of the universe. Radio telescopes are designed to capture radio waves from the cosmos that emanate from exploding stars, forming stars, black holes, and beyond. These telescopes, often built as giant dishes, must be large because radio waves from the deep universe are extremely weak sources of energy.
However, radio telescope arrays on Earth, despite being vast, receive too much interference to pick up the faintest signals in the universe. The ionosphere, a lofty part of our atmosphere, reflects extremely distant and stretched-out radio waves, and random radio emissions from our noisy civilization can interfere with radio astronomy as well, drowning out the faintest signals.
The moon’s far side is an ideal location to solve these problems since it offers a relatively clear view of the cosmos. With almost no lunar atmosphere and the moon itself blocking pesky radio waves from our planet, a telescope on the dark side of the moon would be free from noise.
The FarView concept is quite ambitious, but NASA is funding the aerospace company Lunar Resources for its further development through its “NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts” program. During this Phase II round, researchers can receive up to $600,000 to advance their ideas. This year’s recipients include a planetary defense project that would “pulverize” an incoming asteroid or comet, an “astropharmacy” to make needed drugs in deep space, and a fast-moving spacecraft powered by a “radioisotope electric propulsion system.”
According to Burns, the FarView observatory’s major selling point is that nearly all of the metallic materials required for construction are available on the moon. Giant, expensive rockets will not need to carry bounties of conducting metal for the antennae.
Burns further emphasized that they could build an array with 100,000 antennas with only a few flights to the moon. Similar to a giant spiderweb laid on the ground, robotic rovers would lay strips of aluminum extracted from the lunar soil on relatively flat expanses of the moon. These thin metal strips act like the metal rods or wires commonly seen in antennas, which catch radio signals traveling by.
However, the radio waves that astronomers hope to catch on the moon are quite long, at around 20, 30, or more meters. FM radio waves are only about three meters long. Since the universe is constantly expanding, the different types of light are stretched out as space expands. That’s why an observatory that seeks some of the oldest signals in the cosmos must be so large: the radio waves have been stretched like taffy.
Of course, constructing the FarView Observatory will require more than mining aluminum from the moon’s soil. A swarm of robotic rovers will need to lay the wiring, and solar panels will need to be constructed to power the machines. Some level of human oversight will be required, perhaps from astronauts who will inhabit the Lunar Gateway, a proposed space station that would orbit the moon Vision and serve as a staging point for lunar missions.
Another challenge is the extreme environment of the moon. The lunar surface is subject to extreme temperature fluctuations, ranging from -173°C to 127°C. The surface is also exposed to radiation from the sun and cosmic rays, which can damage electronic equipment. Engineers will need to design the observatory to withstand these conditions and operate reliably for years.
Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of the FarView Observatory make it a project worth pursuing. The telescope could enable new discoveries in cosmology, astrophysics, and planetary science, inspiring future generations to explore the universe and expanding our understanding of the cosmos. With careful planning and execution, the FarView Observatory could be a shining example of human ingenuity and determination in the quest to explore our universe.