Moon Radio Telescopes to Unveil the Universe’s Dark Ages

Moon from Earth: Telescopic Arrays planned

A team working for NASA’s Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) have plans to place some form of radio telescope on the moon. The hope is that this telescope will circumvent atmospheric interference that is typically encountered on Earth, and unveil the “Dark Age” mysteries of the universe in unprecedented detail.

According to the team’s website, the proposed device will be called the Dark Ages Lunar Interferometer (DALI) and will feature a series of thousands of interlinked, low frequency dipoles, manufactured using highly durable polyimide foil.

The team plan to position the radio array on a quiet, well-protected region of the moon, where interference will be minimal. The combination of these many antennas will essentially serve as a single, giant radio telescope with huge resolution, combining signals collected from individual units.

These units would be unreeled, using a rover similar to Curiosity, which is currently roaming the surface of Mars, on route to Mount Sharp.

A Cosmological “Dark Age”

The Dark Ages Lunar Interferometer refers to the ultimate goals behind the ambitious project. The team plan to witness space events that transpired during what they refer to as the “Dark Ages,” constituting a period of time prior to the existence of star formations. Observing the radio spectrum from a moon-based telescope site would enable astronomers to unveil the state of the universe during its infancy, when it was as young as 15 to 80 million years old.

According to Forbes, Joseph Lazio, an astronomer working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, states that the team’s proposals could enable observations that would not be possible on Earth. Lazio also indicates that radio signals received from extrasolar planets could enable scientists to potentially discover earth-like planets:

“An array that could do the cosmology we want… would not allow us to detect a magnetic field from an exact earth analog. But it might allow us to detect an earthlike planet with magnetic fields stronger [than ours].”

Planned Telescope Arrays for Moon
Preliminary concept art, representing the flat Kapton-based telescope arrays

Currently, the team is investigating the feasibility of such a project. Specifically, they are experimenting with a piece of film, manufactured from a material called Kapton. Kapton is highly durable at extreme temperatures, ranging from approximately -450 to 750° F, a feature that makes it ideal for the conditions of the lunar surface. The material is being tested inside a vacuum chamber at extremes of temperature, over a one month period, with each hot/cold cycle lasting a duration of 24 hours.

The team also hope to establish the impact of these fluctuating temperatures, in addition to intense ultraviolet light, upon the copper coating of the Kapton film to see whether it degrades over a sustained period. The electrical conductivity of the copper will also be measured to determine its temperature dependence, under these conditions.

The Challenges

Unfortunately, there is a long way to go before we get to observe this cosmological Dark Age, with the project unlikely to see completion until as late as 2030. The project would also need a significant injection of cash and is, currently, not being officially funded by NASA; however, the team do have funding to begin early research into the technologies required, as well as the scientific basis for such efforts, which should last until 2014.

The project is also fraught with technical difficulties that would need addressing. Financially costly rovers would be necessitated to lay the arrays, in conjunction with the deployment of a lunar satellite to facilitate transmission of data back to Earth. In addition, to avoid the punishing effects of the sun’s solar output, observations would need to be made during lunar nights, which would require additional specialist equipment and further expense.

It may be a long time to wait to witness the so-called Dark Ages of our universe, but the moon-based telescopic array looks set to make a huge difference to the method by which we view space and could help to unveil the many secrets of the cosmos.

By: James Fenner

NASA Lunar Science Institute Website

Forbes Article Link