The Dutch Are Going To The Moon With The Chinese

One of the defining characteristics of the New Space era is partnerships. Whether it is between the private and public sector, different space agencies, or different institutions across the world, collaboration has become the cornerstone to success. Consider the recent agreement between the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) and the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) that was announced earlier this week.

In an agreement made possible by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2015 between the Netherlands and China, a Dutch-built radio antenna will travel to the Moon aboard the Chinese Chang’e 4 satellite, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. Once the lunar exploration mission reaches the Moon, it will deposit the radio antenna on the far side, where it will begin to provide scientists with fascinating new views of the Universe.

The radio antenna itself is also the result of collaboration, between scientists from Radboud University, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and the small satellite company Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS). After years of research and development, these three organizations have produced an instrument which they hope will usher in a new era of radio astronomy.

The satellite rotates around a fixed point behind the moon – the second Lagrange, or L2, point in the Earth-moon system. This point is located 65,000 kilometres from the moon.. Credit: ru.nl
Diagram showing how the Chang’e 4 satellite will rotate around a fixed point behind the moon – the second Lagrange, or L2, point in the Earth-moon system. Credit: ru.nl

Essentially, radio astronomy involves the study of celestial objects – ranging from stars and galaxies to pulsars, quasars, masers and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – at radio frequencies. Using radio antennas, radio telescopes, and radio interferometers, this method allows for the study of objects that might otherwise be invisible or hidden in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

One drawback of radio astronomy is the potential for interference. Since only certain wavelengths can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, and local radio wave sources can throw off readings, radio antennas are usually located in remote areas of the world. A good example of this is the Very-Long Baseline Array (VLBA) located across the US, and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) under construction in Australia and South Africa.

One other solution is to place radio antennas in space, where they will not be subject to interference or local radio sources. The antenna being produced by Radbound, ASTRON and ISIS is being delivered to the far side of the Moon for just this reason. As the latest space-based radio antenna to be deployed, it will be able to search the cosmos in ways Earth-based arrays cannot, looking for vital clues to the origins of the universe.

As Heino Falke – a professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud – explained in a University press release, the deployment of this radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will be an historic achievement:

“Radio astronomers study the universe using radio waves, light coming from stars and planets, for example, which is not visible with the naked eye. We can receive almost all celestial radio wave frequencies here on Earth. We cannot detect radio waves below 30 MHz, however, as these are blocked by our atmosphere. It is these frequencies in particular that contain information about the early universe, which is why we want to measure them.”

The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world's largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018  Swinburne Astronomy Productions for SKA Project Development Office
The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018. Credit: SKA Project Development Office/SAP

As it stands, very little is known about this part of the electromagnetic spectrum. As a result, the Dutch radio antenna could be the first to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in the Universe. It is also the first instrument to be sent into space as part of a Chinese space mission.

Alongside Heino Falcke, Marc Klein Wolt – the director of the Radboud Radio Lab – is one of the scientific advisors for the project. For years, he and Falcke have been working towards the deployment of this radio antenna, and have high hopes for the project. As Professor Wolt said about the scientific package he is helping to create:

“The instrument we are developing will be a precursor to a future radio telescope in space. We will ultimately need such a facility to map the early universe and to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in it, like stars and galaxies.”

Together with engineers from ASTRON and ISIS, the Dutch team has accumulated a great deal of expertise from their years working on other radio astronomy projects, which includes experience working on the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the development of the Square Kilometre Array, all of which is being put to work on this new project.

A radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will enable deep space surveys that were never before possible. Credit: NASA Goddard
A radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will enable deep space surveys that were never before possible. Credit: NASA Goddard

Other tasks that this antenna will perform include monitoring space for solar storms, which are known to have a significant impact on telecommunications here on Earth. With a radio antenna on the far side of the Moon, astronomers will be able to better predict such events and prepare for them in advance.

Another benefit will be the ability to measure strong radio pulses from gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, which will help us to learn more about their rotational speed. Combined with the recent ESO efforts to map Jupiter at IR frequencies, and the data that is already arriving from the Juno mission, this data is likely to lead to some major breakthroughs in our understanding of this mysterious planet.

Last, but certainly not least, the Dutch team wants to create the first map of the early Universe using low-frequency radio data. This map is expected to take shape after two years, once the Moon has completed a few full rotations around the Earth and computer analysis can be completed.

It is also expected that such a map will provide scientists with additional evidence that confirms the Standard Model of Big Bang cosmology (aka. the Lambda CDM model). As with other projects currently in the works, the results are likely to be exciting and groundbreaking!

Further Reading: Radbound University

The Laws Of Cosmology May Need A Re-Write

A map of the CMB as captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Credit: WMAP team

Something’s up in cosmology that may force us to re-write a few textbooks. It’s all centred around the measurement of the expansion of the Universe, which is, obviously, a pretty key part of our understanding of the cosmos.

The expansion of the Universe is regulated by two things: Dark Energy and Dark Matter. They’re like the yin and yang of the cosmos. One drives expansion, while one puts the brakes on expansion. Dark Energy pushes the universe to continually expand, while Dark Matter provides the gravity that retards that expansion. And up until now, Dark Energy has appeared to be a constant force, never wavering.

How is this known? Well, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is one way the expansion is measured. The CMB is like an echo from the early days of the Universe. It’s the evidence left behind from the moment about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the rate of expansion of the Universe stabilized. The CMB is the source for most of what we know of Dark Energy and Dark Matter. (You can hear the CMB for yourself by turning on a household radio, and tuning into static. A small percentage of that static is from the CMB. It’s like listening to the echo of the Big Bang.)

The CMB has been measured and studied pretty thoroughly, most notably by the ESA’s Planck Observatory, and by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The Planck, in particular, has given us a snapshot of the early Universe that has allowed cosmologists to predict the expansion of the Universe. But our understanding of the expansion of the Universe doesn’t just come from studying the CMB, but also from the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant is named after Edwin Hubble, an American astronomer who observed that the expansion velocity of galaxies can be confirmed by their redshift. Hubble also observed Cepheid variable stars, a type of standard candle that gives us reliable measurements of distances between galaxies. Combining the two observations, the velocity and the distance, yielded a measurement for the expansion of the Universe.

So we’ve had two ways to measure the expansion of the Universe, and they mostly agree with each other. There’ve been discrepancies between the two of a few percentage points, but that has been within the realm of measurement errors.

But now something’s changed.

In a new paper, Dr. Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, and his team, have reported a more stringent measurement of the expansion of the Universe. Riess and his team used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe 18 standard candles in their host galaxies, and have reduced some of the uncertainty inherent in past studies of standard candles.

The result of this more accurate measurement is that the Hubble constant has been refined. And that, in turn, has increased the difference between the two ways the expansion of the Universe is measured. The gap between what the Hubble constant tells us is the rate of expansion, and what the CMB, as measured by the Planck spacecraft, tells us is the rate of expansion, is now 8%. And 8% is too large a discrepancy to be explained away as measurement error.

The fallout from this is that we may need to revise our standard model of cosmology to account for this, somehow. And right now, we can only guess what might need to be changed. There are at least a couple candidates, though.

It might be centred around Dark Matter, and how it behaves. It’s possible that Dark Matter is affected by a force in the Universe that doesn’t act on anything else. Since so little is known about Dark Matter, and the name itself is little more than a placeholder for something we are almost completely ignorant about, that could be it.

Or, it could be something to do with Dark Energy. Its name, too, is really just a placeholder for something we know almost nothing about. Maybe Dark Energy is not constant, as we have thought, but changes over time to become stronger now than in the past. That could account for the discrepancy.

A third possibility is that standard candles are not the reliable indicators of distance that we thought they were. We’ve refined our measurements of standard candles before, maybe we will again.

Where this all leads is open to speculation at this point. The rate of expansion of the Universe has changed before; about 7.5 billion years ago it accelerated. Maybe it’s changing again, right now in our time. Since Dark Energy occupies so-called empty space, maybe more of it is being created as expansion continues. Maybe we’re reaching another tipping or balancing point.

The only thing certain is that it is a mystery. One that we are driven to understand.