Billion dollar Moon observatory gets NASA cash

US space authorities are planning to create an array of radio telescopes on the far side of the Moon that would probe the earliest history of the universe

The Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology project, led by researchers at MIT, is one of 18 'future observatories' that NASA has confirmed it is developing.

LARC would consist of hundreds of modules, spread across an area of up to two square kilometres and designed to pick up very low frequency radio emissions. They would be moved into place on the Moon's surface by automated vehicles.

The advantage of being on the dark side of the Moon is that the array would be shielded from interference by terrestrial radio and television and the Earth's ionosphere.

According to project leader Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT's Kavli Centre for Astrophysics and Space Science, the observatory would be among the easiest to build of the designs being considered by NASA. The long wavelengths of the radio waves it will detect don't require particularly accurate placement of the individual components, and performance would not be affected significantly if a few units fail.

As well as studying the origins of the universe, the array would be used to monitor disturbances on the surface of the sun and scan for radio emissions from other planets.

The MIT-led team, and another at the US Naval Research Laboratory developing a similar proposal, have each been awarded grants of half a million dollars to spend a year working on detailed plans. If successful, construction is not expected to begin before 2025 and has been estimated to cost more than a billion dollars.

Image: MIT's Jacqueline Hewitt with a prototype of the radio telescope array that could be built on the far side of the Moon [MIT/Donna Coveney]

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