By Jasmine Kabiri
The University of Colorado Boulder is teaming up with Lunar Resources Inc., of Houston, to place a radio observatory on the far side of the moon by 2030.
The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts recently awarded the team a $125,000 grant to fund a nine-month research period. NIAC is a program that selects highly innovative projects with the potential to create breakthroughs in science. NIAC selected less than 5% of proposals to be funded, including the CU Boulder and Lunar Resources project, FarView.
Jack Burns is an astrophysics professor and the vice president emeritus for Academic Affairs and Research at CU Boulder. He is also the director and principal investigator of the NASA-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science. Burns is the concept creator of FarView.
“We’re mapping out the future of radio astronomy, starting with a very simple antenna on the lunar surface, the near side, facing the Earth, then in 2024, that will be followed by a more sophisticated radio telescope that will be on the far side,” Burns said.
FarView intends to produce an array of radio telescopes on the far side of the moon, made up of 100,000 dipole antennas, which are similar to antennas on old televisions.
The dipole antennas will be placed 60 meters apart in rows to create a 20–by-20-kilometer observatory larger than the city of Boulder.
“They (dipole antennas) receive radio waves, and we’re able to, with these arrays, turn those into images to look out at the universe,” Burns said.
Images received from FarView can provide scientists with more information about the early universe, from a specific period known as the Dark Ages and the Cosmic Dawn.
“The Dark Ages refers to the time before stars and galaxies had formed, and the Cosmic Dawn refers to when these objects were beginning to form, so this is an unexplored period in the universe,” said Neil Bassett, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Science at CU Boulder.
The investigation of a period that has never been sampled before will help scientists decide if their standard model of physics and cosmology is correct or needs to be altered, Burns explained.
By placing the observatory on the far side of the moon, the team will have better access to data. If placed on Earth, the ionosphere and human-generated signals would interfere with signals from the universe. Therefore, “the moon solves both of these problems,” Bassett said.
As CU Boulder is teaming up with an industrial space company, Lunar Resource’s role will be to utilize materials found on the moon’s surface to create the observatory, Ronald Polidan, director of programs of Lunar Resources, said.
“We will land a processing factory that takes the (lunar) dirt, separates it into metals and oxygen, places it in a rover that will melt those metals and form them into antennas or wires,” Polidan said. “The rover will then place the antenna directly on the surface, do all the electronics associated with it, move 60 meters and repeat the process.”
The team is in the beginning stages of phase one, a nine-month period to research and answer all of the “how” questions of the project. Next, the team will apply for NIAC phase two to fund more preparations before transitioning to place the observatory on the lunar surface by 2030. The process of placing each antenna may take two to three years, Polidan said.
The universe and its characteristics have been studied for generations, but the blank space in the history between the Cosmic Dawn and the Dark Ages is a period that CU Boulder and Lunar Resources intend to learn more about with FarView.
“It’s one step along this ladder that we haven’t filled in yet, and so I think it’s really important that we answer these existential questions of, ‘How did we get here?’” Bassett said.