Radio Astronomy: Why study it? What can it teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Image of radio telescopes at the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, located in Socorro, New Mexico. (Credit: National Radio Astronomy Observatory)

Universe Today has investigated the significance of studying impact cratersplanetary surfacesexoplanetsastrobiologysolar physicscometsplanetary atmospheresplanetary geophysics, cosmochemistry, and meteorites, and how these scientific fields contribute to researchers and the public gain greater insight into our place in the universe and finding life beyond Earth. Here, will discuss the field of radio astronomy with Dr. Wael Farah, who is a research scientist at the SETI Institute, about how radio astronomy teaches us about the myriad of celestial objects that populate our universe, along with the benefits and challenges, finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying radio astronomy. But what is radio astronomy and why is it so important to study?

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Astronomers Propose a 50-Meter Submillimeter Telescope

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile is our most powerful radio telescope. But astronomers are hungering for a new radio telescope made of one massive dish. Image Credit: A. Marinkovic/X-Cam/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Some parts of the Universe only reveal important details when observed in radio waves. That explains why we have ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre-submillimetre Array, a collection of 7-meter and 12-meter radio telescopes that work together as an interferometer. But, ALMA-type arrays have their limitations, and astronomers know what they need to overcome those limitations.

They need a radio telescope that’s just one single, massive dish.

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Using Smart Materials To Deploy A Dark Age Explorer

One of the most significant constraints on the size of objects placed into orbit is the size of the fairing used to put them there. Large telescopes must be stuffed into a relatively small fairing housing and deployed to their full size, sometimes using complicated processes. But even with those processes, there is still an upper limit to how giant a telescope can be. That might be changing soon, with the advent of smart materials – particularly on a project funded by NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) that would allow for a kilometer-scale radio telescope in space.

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Astronomers Find the Birthplaces of Stars in the Whirlpool Galaxy

Understanding how star-forming works at a galactic scale is challenging in our Milky Way. While we have a general understanding of the layout of our galaxy, we can’t see all of the details head-on like we would want to if we were exploring a single galaxy for details of star formation. Luckily, we have a pretty good view of the entirety of one of the most famous galaxies in all of astronomy – M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. Now, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy has completed a survey of molecules throughout the galaxy and developed a map of potential star-forming regions.

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A Radio Telescope on the Moon Could Help Us Understand the First 50 Million Years of the Universe

Artist's illustration of a radio telescope inside a crater on the Moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the coming decade, multiple space agencies and commercial space providers are determined to return astronauts to the Moon and build the necessary infrastructure for long-duration stays there. This includes the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp, a collaborative effort led by NASA with support from the ESA, CSA, and JAXA, and the Russo-Chinese International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). In addition, several agencies are exploring the possibility of building a radio observatory on the far side of the Moon, where it could operate entirely free of radio interference.

For years, researchers have advocated for such an observatory because of the research that such an observatory would enable. This includes the ability to study the Universe during the early “Cosmic Dark Ages,” even before the first stars and galaxies formed (about 50 million years after the Big Bang). While there have been many predictions about what kind of science a lunar-based radio observatory could perform, a new research study from Tel Aviv University has predicted (for the first time) what groundbreaking results this observatory could actually obtain.

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A New Technique Has Dramatically Improved ALMA’s Resolution

Image showing two of the receivers of the ALMA array in the Atacama Desert.
Two of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) 12-metre antennas (Credit : Iztok Bon?ina/ESO)

To those familiar with optical telescopes, the idea of doing something to achieve higher resolution with their telescope may seem alien, if not, then practically impossible. A telescopes resolution is determined by among other things, its aperture – diameter of the thing that collects light (or electromagnetic radiation) and of course you can’t easily change that. Enter the team at ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array who have become the first to use the Band 10 receiver and extreme separation of the receivers to boosting its resolution so they can see detail equivalent of detecting a 10 meter long bus on the Moon!

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A Sneak Peek at the Next Generation Very Large Array’s New Antennae

Credit: National Science Foundation/Associated Universities, Inc./National Radio Astronomy Observatory/J.Malusky

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) recently disclosed a prototype radio telescope antennae for its next generation Very Large Array (ngVLA) to a group of press, scientists, engineers, and government and business leaders from the United States and Germany at the end of a workshop held at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig. While construction on the ngVLA isn’t slated to begin until 2026, this recent unveiling provided an opportunity for mtex antenna technology to present its 18-meter dish, which consists of 76 individual aluminum panels arranged in an 8-sided shape.

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Starlinks are Easily Detected by Radio Telescopes

Artist's impression of the 5km diameter central core of Square Kilometre Array (SKA) antennas. Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Radio astronomy and satellite communication have a long common history. Advances made in one field have benefitted the other, and our modern era of spacecraft and mobile internet is a product of this partnership. But there are times when the goals of radio astronomy and the goals of communication satellites are in opposition. This is most clearly seen in the development of satellite constellations such as Starlink.

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Astronomers are Working to Put a Radio Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon by 2025

This artist’s rendering shows LuSEE-Night atop the Blue Ghost spacecraft scheduled to deliver the experiment to the far side of the moon. Credit: Firefly Aerospace

The Moon will be a popular destination for space programs worldwide in the coming years. By 2025, NASA’s Artemis III mission will land the first astronauts (“the first woman and first person of color”) onto the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo Era, over fifty years ago. They will be joined by multiple space agencies, as per the Artemis Accords, that will send European, Canadian, Japanese, and astronauts of other nationalities to the lunar surface. These will be followed in short order by taikonauts (China), cosmonauts (Russia), and vyomanauts (India), who will conduct similarly lucrative research and exploration.

Having facilities in orbit of the Moon, like the Artemis Base Camp, the International Lunar Research Station, and others, will enable all manner of scientific research that is not possible on Earth or in Earth orbit. This includes radio astronomy, which would be free of terrestrial interference on the far side of the Moon and sensitive enough to detect light from previously unexplored cosmological periods. This is the purpose of a pathfinder project known as the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment-Night (LuSEE-Night) that will leave for the Moon next year and spend the next 18 months listening to the cosmos!

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It’s Official. No More Astronomy at Arecibo

Damage to the 305-meter telescope at Arecibo Observatory, after its collapse on Dec. 1, 2020. The remains of the instrument platform are visible on the telescope’s dish. Credit: NSF.

Even though the National Science Foundation announced last year that it would not rebuild or replace the iconic Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico — which collapsed in 2020 – a glimmer of hope remained among supporters that the remaining astronomy infrastructure would be utilized in some way.  

Instead, the NSF announced this week they have chosen four institutions to transition the site from its historic hub of astronomical research to a STEM educational outreach center, with a seeming focus on biology. A biomedical laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York along with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the University of the Sacred Heart, both in San Juan will oversee the new education center.

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