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Scientists want to build telescopes on the moon for up to $10 billion to see more of the universe than the James Webb Space Telescope

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Scientists want to build telescopes on the moon for up to $10 billion to see more of the universe than the James Webb Space Telescope
  • Astronomers want to build giant telescopes on the moon to see and hear the universe more clearly.
  • Lunar telescopes could be even stronger than the James Webb Space Telescope.

Gazing at the moon, you may see a face or a round of cheese, but some astronomers see the ideal spot for their next giant telescope.

They're already drafting blueprints and making proposals — some with cash from an interested NASA.

One moonshot plan would build a giant radio dish spanning an entire crater on the far side of the moon.

Another involves a giant triangle of lasers to detect ripples in space-time and trace them to distant collisions of black holes and massive dead stars.

Yet another proposal would use SpaceX's Starship to build a lunar base-hotel-telescope hybrid featuring a mega-observatory stronger than the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope ever launched into space.

"The future is the moon," astrophysicist Joseph Silk told Business Insider after he and other moon-telescope advocates met to discuss their plans during a conference of the American Astronomical Society in New Orleans.

It sounds and looks like sci-fi. But these astronomers are very serious; some think they can get their hardware on the moon in the next decade.

NASA even launched a miniature radio observatory aboard Intuitive Machines' Odysseus lander, which landed on the moon last week. The experiment is part of a larger plan to build a vast array of radio antennas on the far side of the moon.

Other projects also hope to piggyback off the NASA program that produced that moon landing, called Commercial Lunar Payload Services. It's NASA's core lunar strategy for the 21st century: sponsor various private companies to develop affordable spacecraft, then hitch a ride.

"These things can move much more quickly than if you just rely on NASA or another space agency, a governmental agency, to do it all alone," Jack Burns, an astrophysicist and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who is spearheading the radio observatory efforts, told Business Insider.

With private companies speeding up the development of launch and landing vehicles, Burns said the next three decades could bring multiple pilot projects and, eventually, whole observatories to the moon.

Silk argues that lunar telescopes would open the door to a new era of major space discoveries. For example, he said, "if you want to discover [alien] life, the way you're going to do it is on the moon."

Why put a telescope (or three or four) on the moon

Scientists have good reason to take their telescopes out of this world.

Down here on Earth, astronomers turning their lenses and antennas toward distant galaxies, planets, or black holes are getting frustrated. They have to peer through the thick distortions of the atmosphere, squint past the streaks of more and more satellites, or listen around the radio emissions of those satellites.

Even the Hubble Space Telescope orbiting Earth isn't safe from satellite interference.

That's just on top of regular interference from the atmosphere. Only a limited range of radio frequencies pass through Earth's atmosphere without getting garbled. That atmospheric garbling makes it difficult for Earth-based telescopes to hear radio emissions from the earliest stages of the universe.

On the moon, though, astronomers can escape both the atmosphere and the satellites. That opens a new world of possibilities.

Ambitious blueprints show giant antenna spirals and triangles of lasers

NASA has entertained a variety of moon-observatory concepts, sometimes giving researchers cash to craft a design for their idea.

Several proposals are for radio telescopes. That's because the far side of the moon is the most radio-quiet place in the inner solar system, according to Burns.

There, the moon's bulk blocks radio emissions from human technology on Earth. Any radio telescope on the moon's back end would pick up the pure emissions of the universe.

That's why Burns wants to build a 6-mile-wide windmill-shaped array of more than 100 radio antennas on the far side of the moon. The concept is called FARSIDE, short for "Farside Array for Radio Science Investigations of the Dark ages and Exoplanets."

Blue Origin's Blue Moon lander could carry the whole thing there in one trip.

A small test of this concept is on the moon now with the Intuitive Machines Odysseus lander.

Another proposal, by the Houston-based company Lunar Resources, would manufacture 100,000 antennas on-site, using the metals in lunar dirt, then install them over an area of about 77 square miles to make a giant radio telescope array on the far side of the moon. NASA is funding studies of the concept, called FarView.

Burns calls FarView "the ultimate radio array."

Here's how the large-scale blueprints for FARSIDE and FarView compare:

Karan Jani, an astrophysicist at Vanderbilt University, champions another type of astronomy on the moon: the Laser Interferometer Lunar Antenna (LILA).

LILA would consist of three boxes shooting lasers at each other, in a giant triangle across a lunar crater.

Like its L-shaped counterparts on Earth, LILA would precisely monitor its lasers so that a disturbance in them indicated the passing of gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time that travel toward us from distant collisions of black holes or neutron stars.

These are the most violent events in the universe, and they forge all the gold, platinum, and silver in existence.

LILA would pick up many gravitational waves that earthquakes and human activity are drowning out for Earth-based detectors.

Jani plans to get a prototype on the moon to prove the concept by 2028. That pathfinder mission would test the laser technology between a lander and a rover.

Telescopes, astronauts, and space tourists could coexist on the moon

Other proposals are for the types of telescopes that may be more familiar to you — the kind that look at the universe in visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light.

Roger Angel, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, has studied the possibility of an array of 18 optical and infrared telescopes near the moon's south pole. It could be done for $10 billion, he says — the same cost as the James Webb Space Telescope, with 20 times its aperture.

"Each of the telescopes in the array is the size of the Webb telescope, and all their light is combined into a single image," Angel told Business Insider in an email.

It could even be combined with a long-term habitat for astronauts and tourists — like this one Angel designed with a giant rotating above-ground mirror to capture sunlight and funnel it to a 170-foot-wide indoor farm growing atop a living complex for 40 people.

Another rendering of the concept shows how the habitat would help staff the telescope array.

Putting such a telescope on the far side of the moon, where it could have a clear view of the universe, could allow astronomers to peer further into the universe's history than ever before, past the first stars to the cosmic dark ages right after the Big Bang.

"It's all about who we are and where we come from," Burns said.

Industry and astronomy might be shooting for the same moon craters

Only a few craters are suitable for these observatories, but their permanent shadows could make them targets for future mining.

That's because those shadows can shelter reserves of frozen water from the sun's unfiltered space radiation. Space agencies and companies seeking to launch from the moon's surface to more distant destinations, like Mars, will need to mine that water in order to produce fresh rocket fuel on-site.

Observatories, however, must be located far from the noise and vibrations of any mining operations.

At the conference in New Orleans, astrophysicist Martin Elvis warned the astronomers that they may need to secure safe zones for their dream observatories.

"If we lose this capability, it may be a permanent loss to science," Elvis said.

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