Astronomers need a quiet place to observe the cosmic dawn
For decades, astronomers have gazed up at the moon and dreamed about what they would do with its most unusual real estate. Because the moon is gravitationally locked to our planet, the same side of the moon always faces us. That means the lunar far side is the one place in the solar system where you can never see Earth—or, from a radio astronomer’s point of view, the one place where you can’t hear Earth. It may therefore be the ideal location for a radio telescope, as the receiver would be shielded by the bulk of the moon from both human-made electromagnetic noise and emissions from natural occurrences like Earth’s auroras.
Early plans for far-side radio observatories included telescopes that would use a wide range of frequencies and study many different phenomena. But as the years rolled by, ground- and satellite-based telescopes improved, and the scientific rationale for such lunar observatories weakened. With one exception: A far-side telescope would still be best for observing phenomena that can be detected only at low frequencies, which in the radio astronomy game means below 100 megahertz. Existing telescopes run into trouble below that threshold, when Earth’s ionosphere, radio interference, and ground effects begin to play havoc with observations; by 30 MHz, ground-based observations are precluded.
In recent years, scientific interest in those low frequencies has exploded. Understanding the very early universe could be the “killer app” for a far-side radio observatory, says Jack Burns, an astrophysics professor at the University of Colorado and the director of the NASA-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science. After the initial glow of the big bang faded, no new light came into the universe until the first stars formed. Studying this “cosmic dawn [PDF],” when the first stars, galaxies, and black holes formed, means looking at frequencies between 10 and 50 MHz, Burns says; this is where signature emissions from hydrogen are to be found, redshifted to low frequencies by the expansion of the universe.
With preliminary funding from NASA, Burns is developing a satellite mission that will orbit the moon and observe the early universe while it travels across the far side. But to take the next step scientifically requires a far larger array with thousands of antennas. That’s not practical in orbit, says Burns, but it is feasible on the far side. “The lunar surface is stable,” he says. “You just put these things down. They stay where they need to be.”
This article appears in the July 2019 print issue as “The View From the Far Side.”