NASA’s plan to put a telescope on the Moon

The Moon telescope would actually consist of an array of telescopes, like the Square Kilometer Array on Earth, pictured here | Image: astronomywa.net Over the last 50 years we’ve managed to get telescopes pretty much everywhere: from the remote Atacama desert to the peaks of Hawaiian volcanoes and even to outer space, we’ve got giant eyes on the Universe set up all over the place. But what about a telescope on the Moon?

Well, that may be happening soon as well. NASA has announced that it’s funding a year-long research project into the feasibility of having a telescope on the Moon – although it will not even start being constructed until 2025, so don’t get too excited yet.

The Moon | Image: University of Leicester The obvious thing to ask is what is the point in spending $1 billion putting a telescope on the Moon?

It’s all down to the problem of interference on Earth. The type of waves that the Moon telescope would be detecting are radio waves, which are distorted by Earth’s atmosphere so much that they become almost useless. Add to that the huge amount of radio waves being produced for our TVs – and of course radios – and it just becomes impossible to do anything with radio waves on Earth.

A telescope on the dark side of the Moon would be permanently out of the reach of all this disturbance, giving crystal clear views of our Universe.

Why radio waves? We already know quite a bit about the extremely early Universe because of the Cosmic Microwave Background. And we also know a lot about the Universe since the time of the first galaxies, because we can use telescopes to see our Universe in evolution over those billions of years. Radio wave telescopes are necessary to see the time in between – when the Universe was starting to become more stable, but hadn’t yet started producing galaxies.

The Moon | Image: NOAODiscovering more about this era in our Universe’s history could unleash a revolution in our knowledge of dark matter – one of the last things about the Universe that we know virtually nothing about. Will NASA approve the telescope? I certainly hope so – and I’m quite confident that they will.

NPR’s Science Friday did a fascinating interview with the woman leading this research project – click here to listen.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m fascinated how modern “space telescopes” are challenging our definition of “seeing”. The Hubble was designed to capture a range of light, from ultraviolet to visible to near-infrared. The new James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to go into orbit in 2013, will work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with “some capability” in the visible range. And now you say the potential moon telescope will rely on radio waves… Maybe telescope is the wrong word!

  2. Back in the 1950’s when radio astronomy was first starting to get going, most astronomers dismissed it as not being ‘real astronomy’ – now it has been proven to be just as important as any other part of the spectrum.

    You mentioned the JWST – I’m really looking forward to that. It’s basically going to be like Hubble, but much better. That’s saying something, considering how amazing Hubble has been.

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