In a bid to understand even more about our mysterious and massive universe, NASA is partnering with the Department of Energy on an ambitious lunar project. The two agencies announced that they will develop and deploy a radio telescope, called the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment – Night (LuSEE-Night), on the far side of the Moon as part of a larger effort to study the Dark Ages of the universe.
Temperatures on the Moon’s surface can oscillate between 250 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Celsius) and -280 F (-173 C), which can interfere with data collection and cause instruments to freeze. As a demonstration mission, LuSEE-Night’s primary objective is not to collect scientific data but merely to survive the harsh environment on the lunar far side, to test the feasibility of installing future telescopes there. Whatever radio observations it collects will be a welcome bonus.
“LuSEE-Night is a fascinating experiment that will get us closer to observing something we’ve never been able to before - the Dark Ages signal,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, DOE director of the Office of Science, in a NASA release. “With this collaboration, DOE and NASA are setting conditions for successful exploration of the Dark Ages cosmology in the decades to come.”
The lunar far side is the perfect place for a radio telescope like LuSEE-Night, because it is protected from the constant barrage of radio waves emanating from Earth’s surface. Likewise, the Moon lacks a strong ionosphere, which can also interfere with incoming radio waves a telescope may capture. From its strategic position, LuSEE-Night will use four antennas to collect radio signals in the 0.1 to 50 megahertz range.
The so-called Dark Ages occurred approximately 380,000 to 400 million years after the Big Bang, before stars and galaxies began to form and illuminate space. NASA says that radio waves are the only evidence of the Dark Ages, making the far side of the Moon the best place to collect those signals.
NASA awarded funding in 2020 to a similar telescope idea, called the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, which would see the construction of an Arecibo-like telescope in a natural crater on the far side of the Moon. The Lunar Crater Telescope has received $500,000 in funding from NASA so far and is also aimed at collecting radio waves from the earliest days of the universe.
LuSEE-Night may launch as soon as 2025 on a Commercial Lunar Payload Services mission. According to the DOE, Brookhaven National Laboratory will develop the telescope’s radio receiver, electronics, and power systems, while Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will develop various antenna hardware.