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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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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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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Now Astronomers have Discovered “Ultra-Fast Radio Bursts” Lasting Millionths of a Second

Artist rendition of a radio telescope discovering ultra-fast radio bursts that were recently discovered and the focus of this recent study. (Credit: Daniëlle Futselaar/

A recent study published in Nature Astronomy examines the discovery of what astronomers are dubbing “ultra-fast radio bursts”, a new type of fast radio bursts (FRBs) that the team determined lasts for a mind-boggling ten millionths of a second or less. Traditionally, FRBs have been found to last only thousandths of a second, but this study builds on a 2021 study that hypothesized FRBs could possibly last for millionths of a second. This also comes after astronomers recently announced the discovery of the oldest and farthest FRB ever observed, approximately 8 billion light-years from Earth.

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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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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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Storms on Saturn Can Have Impacts That Last for Hundreds of Years

A giant storm rages on Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The Great Red Spot of Jupiter is a storm that has raged for hundreds of years. It was first observed by Gian Domenico Cassini in 1665, and except for a period between 1713 to 1830, it has been observed continuously ever since. Even if Cassini’s storm is not the one we see today, the current red spot has been around for nearly two centuries. While great storms appear now and then on Saturn and other gas planets, they don’t have the staying power of Jupiter’s great storm. Or so we thought.

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What Does 60 Years of Silence Tell Us About the Search for Extraterrestrials?

The Allen Telescope Array searches for alien technosignals. Credit: Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

Aliens are big in the news recently, fueled by congressional hearings about Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs), formally known as UFOs. But while the idea of aliens visiting Earth may be exciting, the better bet is still the idea that aliens might exist on distant worlds. We already know potentially habitable planets are common and intelligent life has arisen on at least one world, so why not many? But after 60 years of searching for evidence of extraterrestrials “out there,” we’ve found nothing. So what does that tell us?

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Did That Message Come From Earth or Space? Now SETI Researchers can be Sure

Illustration of a radio telescope listening for signals from an alien civilization. Credit: Zayna Sheikh, Breakthrough Listen

In radio astronomy, there are lots of natural radio signals to observe. The glow of hydrogen gas, the swirl of electrons along a magnetic field, or the pop-pop-pop of pulsars. These signals usually have a very natural character to them, so astronomers can distinguish them from the artificial chirps and chatters of terrestrial sources. But when you’re looking for the signals of alien civilizations, things can get more tricky. They should have an artificial character similar to the radio signals of humans. So how can astronomers distinguish between the distant artificial signal and the local ones?

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Your Oven Gets Hotter Than This Star

An artist’s depiction of the relative sizes of the Sun, a low-mass star, a brown dwarf, Jupiter, and the Earth. Credit: Jupiter: NASA,ESA,and A. Simon (NASA,GSFC); Sun and Low-Mass Star: NASA,SDO; Brown Dwarf: NASA,ESA,and JPL-Caltech; Earth: NASA; Infographic: NASA and E. Wheatley (STScI)

Nuclear fusion is what separates stars from planets. Stars are massive enough to fuse hydrogen in their cores, while planets are not. But in between these two categories are brown dwarfs, which are massive enough to experience some nuclear fusion, just not hydrogen. The largest of them are hot and star-like. The smallest of them are barely warm enough to bake a pizza.

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