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Want To See The Past? Put A Telescope On The Moon

A lunar telescope could further unlock the secrets of the Big Bang

CK Kimball
September 08 2021

The Puerto Rican radio telescope, Arecibo (the dish known from films such as Contact and GoldenEye) collapsed and was then decommissioned in late 2020. But, from its ashes, a new idea was forged.

See, Arecibo was different. Funded in the 1960s initially to detect incoming Soviet missiles, Arecibo had a spherical dish allowing it to spot objects even when not pointed directly at them, especially useful, given that the radio telescope was built in a giant sinkhole rather than “free-standing”. It was a quirk in design that, in what was once the world’s largest radio telescope, may lead to another first in human’s exploration of the further reaches of the universe:

A radio telescope on the moon. 

Aww, it’s like a cute little mole: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

It sounds like a crackpot idea; something Dr. Evil would dream up to spy on Austin Powers. But the practical implications could send the astronomical community spinning on its axis.

Even with the many advancements just in recent history, most of what humans “know” about the universe beyond our solar system is based on theory and observation. That includes the edges where the disgraced Pluto hangs out in shame.  But observation from Earth can only go so far. Our planet’s dense atmosphere (Earth’s got bass), light pollution (it’s lit), and man-made electromagnetic radiation (turn it up), significantly affect the view from Earth.

The submitted solution? The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope project or LCRT - a proposal to build a massive radio telescope in a 100-meter long, bowl-shaped crater on the moon. Radio telescopes on earth cannot “see” radio wavelengths longer than 10 meters due to absorption by Earth’s ionosphere, which protects the Earth from the more harmful effects of the sun and other gnarly parts of space like radiation and God knows what else. Even a satellite would be affected by the very thing that makes life livable on Earth.

Rendering of giant radio telescope for the moon: JPNASACaltech

But a radio telescope on the moon (287,460,000,000km or about 178,619,362,920mi away) resolves that issue of ionic “noise”. And, taking a note from Arecibo, a radio telescope in a crater helps eliminate issues of seismic or space wind destruction.

With access to longer radio waves, researchers hope to peer deeply into the history of the universe. We’re talking about the Dark Ages of universal history, like right after The Big Bang but before the first stars lit up the sky. Existence DIRECTLY after The Big Bang is studied via cosmic microwave background, or “relic radiation”, which exists all over space like a radiated echo. This is how we're able to see dark matter, you know, the matter that is dark, which makes up a whopping 27% of visible matter within the universe. (For context, stars and galaxies only make up 5%.) 

That dark matter is what may hold the answers to how our universe went from a Bang to astronomy. The universe’s own Dark Ages, where space was flush with hydrogen, at some point became the building blocks of solar systems. 

So why build on the moon, and not say, Mars or a wayward asteroid? Well, the moon is tidally locked by the Earth meaning it doesn’t rotate. This makes the “dark side” of the moon, the far side facing away, a perfect place to land a radio telescope to be free of ionospheric interference. Landing being the operative word as this isn’t a project that astronauts can necessarily ride out to build it. After all, it’s taken decades of work for any space force on the planet to get as close as they are currently to returning to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. The proposal is to send materials with robots to do the work, a completely sane idea to the scientist interested in research but disinterested in the -297 degrees Fahrenheit (during a full moon) of the moon’s dark side.

Will it happen? Honestly, with the speed of innovation, probably. Turns out, Pink Floyd was on to something with Dark Side of the Moon. Most likely, they didn’t mean finding the Dark Ages of the Universe though. 



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