Perhaps one of the best reasons to return to the Moon will be the boon to astronomy. Without an atmosphere, an observatory the Moon won’t have to peer through an obscuring atmosphere, but people will still be able to walk over and fix it – and even upgrade it – into the future. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s no surprise then, that engineers are working on plans for lunar observatories. When the next wave of astronauts return to the Moon, they’ll be bringing their ‘scopes.
NASA recently selected a series of 19 proposals for lunar observatories, including one suggested by a team from MIT. This observatory would help astronomers study the “Dark Ages” of the Universe, when the first stars and galaxies, and even dark matter formed.
During the first billion years after the Big Bang, there were no stars and galaxies, only opaque hot gas. When the first stars could finally form, their radiation helped ionize this gas and make it transparent. You could finally see in the Universe. It was also in this time that the mysterious dark matter formed from the soup of elementary particles, serving as a gravitational structure for matter to clump around.
The MIT proposal is called the Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology, and it’s headed by Jacqueline Hewitt, a professor of physics and director of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science.
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It would consist of hundreds of telescope modules spread over a 2 square km area designed to pick up very-low-frequency radio emissions. Automated vehicles would crawl across the lunar surface deploying the telescopes.
The time of the Dark Ages is impossible to view from Earth because of interference from our high atmosphere as well as the background radio emissions coming from all directions. But the far side of the Moon is shielded from the Earth’s radio barrage. There it would have a clear, quiet view of the most distant Universe.
There’s another advantage with building a long-wavelength radio telescope on the complicated surface of the Moon; it’s much easier than building a fragile mirror for an optical telescope. The low wavelength radio waves don’t require a high degree of accuracy, so it will be a good test for working on surface of the Moon. Even if some of the individual modules aren’t working, or clogged with lunar dust, the full observatory will still be able to collect data.
The telescope would also be used to study coronal mass ejections coming from the Sun, and accurately measure the space weather passing through the Earth-Moon system. This is what the astronauts will use to check their local weather.
MIT will be working on a one-year study to develop a further plan for the array. If it’s actually chosen for development down the road, construction would begin after 2025 at a cost of more than $1 billion.
Original Source: MIT News Release