NASA is developing plans to build an enormous, Arecibo-like telescope inside a crater on the moon

lunar crater radio telescope
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept.

NASA is paying a team of researchers to develop a plan for a telescope on the far side of the moon.

The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT), as the concept is called, would be a lot like the Arecibo telescope, which collapsed in December. A huge dish would collect radio waves from the cosmos and amplify them so that scientists could analyze the signals. The difference is that on the moon, such a telescope would be shielded from the cacophony of radio signals that such a device on Earth would hear from all kinds of equipment and satellites.

lunar crater radio telescope wide view on far side of moon
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept, as seen from high above the moon.

To build the LCRT, rock-climbing robots would suspend a kilometer-wide dish inside a lunar crater. The telescope would be nearly three times wider than Arecibo, and its lunar perch would give it a much better view of the universe.

“With a sufficiently large radio telescope off Earth, we could track the processes that would lead to the formation of the first stars, maybe even find clues to the nature of dark matter,” Joseph Lazio, a NASA radio astronomer working on the LCRT project, said in a press release.

The LCRT plans are too preliminary to be a NASA mission, but the agency announced in early April that it’s giving the team $500,000 to refine its concept of the telescope’s design and craft a plan for building it.

“It’s very challenging, but it’s something that I think is achievable with present-day technology,” Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a NASA engineer who leads the team, told Insider.

‘We really do not know what the universe looks like’

Arecibo discovered the first known planet beyond our solar system, mapped Venus’ surface, and detected a pair of stars that confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

arecibo radio antenna observatory puerto rico overhead view 20050805 naic national science foundation nsf
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, pictured before its collapse.

However, the telescope was at a disadvantage: Earth’s atmosphere garbles radio waves with a wavelength higher than 10 meters, so it blocked Arecibo’s view of the earliest stages of the universe. Building a telescope on the moon, far from atmospheric interference, would allow astronomers to finally see what they’ve been missing.

“This is at the stage when the first stars were being formed in the universe, or even before that, when the first matter was formed but the stars hadn’t been formed yet,” Bandyopadhyay said.

Studying the early universe could help scientists understand the origins of dark matter, which outweighs visible matter six to one.

“Above-10-meter wavelengths, we really do not know what the universe looks like,” Bandyopadhyay said. “We don’t know what we’re going to discover in those wavelengths.”

The lunar telescope isn’t a NASA mission, but the agency wants to know more

sls space launch system nasa
An artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System, NASA’s next moon rocket, lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Bandyopadhyay’s project is one of six that recently won similar sums from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, which awards funding to help researchers flesh out futuristic ideas like this. These “phase II” grants allow researchers to continue studying their early-stage concepts over the next two years.

In addition to the LCRT, NASA’s list of concepts includes fungus-based space habitats and a swarm of kite-like spacecraft that would explore Venus’ clouds.

“All projects are still in the early stages of development, with most requiring a decade or more of technology maturation. They are not considered official NASA missions,” NASA said in a statement.

Like the other projects, Bandyopadhyay’s team previously got a $125,000 NASA grant to investigate the telescope project’s feasibility.

He’s hopeful that the agency will one day take the LCRT on as an official mission.

No humans required: Robots could build the telescope

duaxel rover climbing robot
A DuAxel rover participates in field tests in the Mojave Desert.

The LCRT team has already picked out a few craters on the moon’s far side that would be big enough for the telescope dish, each about 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) wide. Now they have to figure out how to get the wire-mesh structure into one of those craters.

One potential plan is to land two enormous landers on the edge of the chosen crater – one carrying the mesh and the other carrying 20 crater-climbing DuAxel rovers. The rovers from that second lander would lay out a series of guiding wires on which the first lander would roll out the telescope’s mesh net.

Bandyopadhyay’s team estimates that DuAxel bots could get the job done autonomously in just 10 days, well before the sun would set on that side of the moon for its 15-day night.

the moon surface
The moon as viewed by NASA’s Mariner 10 probe in 1973.

A second option is to use harpoons to deploy the mesh, though that would take about five months, and the robotic equipment would have to survive long lunar nights. The plus side, however, is that Bandyopadhyay estimates this method would be several billion dollars cheaper.

In their first phase of research, Bandyopadhyay’s team picked out a few moon craters that could host their telescope and plotted out the ideas for climbing robots and harpoons. They also laid out the LCRT’s scientific objective: gathering signals from the “Dark Ages” of the early universe and filtering out the cosmic radio noise of our Milky Way.

Now, with their new NASA funding, the group must pick the right materials for the science they want to do.

“In the current phase, our most challenging thing is actually designing a mesh that satisfies multiple different constraints,” Bandyopadhyay said. Those constraints include making a mesh base that would be lightweight enough to launch aboard a rocket. The mesh would also have to be flexible enough to be deployed on the moon yet durable enough to survive dramatic temperature changes there.

lunar crater radio telescope view from inside moon crater
An illustration of the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, as seen from inside the crater.

The team will also do more research into ways to build this telescope, conduct risk analyses, and lay out a work plan.

Bandyopadhyay hopes his team will come out of this next phase of research with a cost estimate and a solid pitch for a future NASA mission.

“If this mission does get funded through the next stages, I would be very surprised if LCRT was successfully deployed on the moon before I retire. And I’m a very young scientist,” Bandyopadhyay said. “Usually things in space of this magnitude really take time. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to the journey, and this will be a journey of a lifetime.”

This post has been updated. It was originally published on April 16, 2021.

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A telescope submerged nearly a mile underwater in the world’s deepest lake is hunting for ghostly particles from space

lake baikal GVD neutrinos
A ceremonial launch of the Baikal-Gigaton Volume Detector (GVD) telescope, in Russia’s Lake Baikal on March 13, 2021.

  • Scientists have submerged a giant telescope nearly a mile underwater in Russia’s Lake Baikal.
  • The telescope is hunting for neutrinos: tiny, neutral particles that are abundant but hard to detect.
  • Most neutrinos have been moving through space since the birth of the universe 14 billion years ago.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A new telescope below the surface of the world’s deepest lake has commenced a hunt for the universe’s most elusive particles.

These tiny particles, neutrinos, have almost no mass and no electrical charge, which makes them challenging to observe. Most neutrinos that exist today formed during the Big Bang, so studying them can offer insights into why our universe looks the way it does, as well as clues about mysterious forces like dark matter.

Russia’s Lake Baikal provides a perfect medium for scientists to observe neutrinos because these particles emit detectable light as they zoom through clear water. The lake’s depth can also shield the detector from radiation and interference.

So earlier this month, an international group of scientists launched the Baikal-Gigaton Volume Detector, the largest neutrino telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. The detector is now submerged between 0.4 miles and 0.8 miles below Lake Baikal’s surface. It measures one-tenth of a mile wide, long, and tall.

Hunting for ‘ghost particles’

The researchers behind the Baikal-Gigaton Volume Detector, or Baikal-GVD, have been working on the project since 2015. The group hails from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Slovakia. According to Russian news agency TASS, the neutrino telescope cost close to $34 million.

lake baikal GVD neutrinos
The launch site of Russia’s new Baikal-GVD telescope. It’s two miles offshore in Lake Baikal.

Neutrinos are the most abundant particles in the universe – about 10 trillion of them pass through your body every second, with you none the wiser. But they’re notoriously hard to detect because they tend to pass through matter without being absorbed by it the way other particles are.

Hence the nickname “ghost particles“: Neutrinos aren’t affected by magnetic fields, and their neutral charge means they don’t interact with anything. They also move at the speed of light.

But when neutrinos travel quickly through water, they emit energy known as Cherenkov radiation, which produces light.

“If an airplane is going very fast, faster than the speed of sound, then it’ll produce sound – a big shockwave – in a way a slower object doesn’t. In the same way, a particle passing through water, if it’s going faster than the speed of light in water, can also produce a shockwave of light,” Yoshi Uchida, a physicist at Imperial College London, previously told Insider.

That’s why the scientists chose Lake Baikal: Its depth and clear water maximize their ability to observe these shockwaves of light. Pristine water means there will be a higher chance that radiation from the neutrinos hits the modules in the detector. And the bigger the lake, the larger the telescope can be – and the more neutrinos it can spot. The lake is just over a mile deep and nearly 50 miles across.

“Lake Baikal is the only lake where you can deploy a neutrino telescope because of its depth,” Bair Shoibonov, one of the Baikal-GVD scientists, told AFP.

“Fresh water is also important, water clarity too. And the fact that there is ice cover for two, two and a half months is also very important,” he added.

Other neutrino detectors have been built underground to stop particles that can’t pass through matter from getting in. The lake’s depth and ice cover acts as a similar barrier.

lake baikal GVD neutrinos
A Russian scientist prepares to launch the Baikal-GVD telescope.

The GVD resembles a giant octopus: It has eight clusters with eight strings each, and each string is peppered with at least a dozen light-detecting modules.

These arms undulate under the water, waiting for neutrinos to collide with them. Each glass module looks like a see-through globe, as pictured above. So far, the GVD has 288 modules.

Each of the clusters’ eight strings is fixed to the lakebed by heavy anchors.

Neutrinos could offer clues about the early universe

Neutrinos may be able to help researchers solve some of the biggest puzzles about the early days of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago.

One particular conundrum is that scientific models of the Big Bang suggest that matter and its counterpart, antimatter, should have been produced in equal parts. These two oppositely charged types of matter should then have destroyed each other on contact, leaving an empty universe.

That obviously wasn’t the case. Instead, something tipped the scales in favor of matter. It’s possible the same process even created matter’s shadowy cousin, dark matter, at the same time. So scientists hope that by studying neutrinos and tracing them back to their origins in space, they might learn more about what happened during the universe’s critical first moments.

lake baikal GVD neutrinos
Part of the Baikal-GVD telescope sinks below the waves of Russia’s Lake Baikal.

Not all neutrinos that this telescope detects will have come from the Big Bang, though. Some existing neutrinos form from nuclear reactions – in nuclear power stations, particle accelerators, or nuclear bombs – or in the sun and other stars as they form, collide, or die. Observing neutrinos that come from some of these other cosmic sources could enhance researchers’ understanding of the evolution of stars and the inner composition of the sun.

The Baikal-GVD is only about half the size of the largest neutrino detector on Earth, the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica. Both use the same type of modules to detect neutrinos.

But in the future, the Baikal-GVD scientists hope to double the new telescope’s size by adding more modules.

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China now holds the world’s last giant, single-dish telescope after the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope collapsed

Photo taken on Sept. 24, 2016 shows the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in Pingtang County, southwest China's Guizhou Province. The FAST, world's largest radio telescope, measuring 500 meters in diameter, was completed and put into use.
China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).

  • China’s Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) is the largest and last remaining giant, single-dish telescope after Arecibo’s collapse.
  • As China’s moon mission advances, experts say the via its resolution and sensitivity, the FAST telescope will help produce critical research over the next decades.
  • Opened in 2016, in November, Chinese state media reported that FAST could welcome foreign scientists in 2021. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After tragedy struck the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, the scientific community mourned the loss of an astronomical landmark.

There is now only one last remaining giant, single-dish, radio telescope in the world: China’s 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST). 

Completed in 2016 and located in the Guizhou province of southwest China, the observatory cost $171 million and took about half a decade to build. Its sheer size allows it to detect faint radio-waves from pulsars and materials in galaxies far away; 300 of its 500-meter diameter can be used at any one time.

Experts say that in the next decade, FAST is expected to shine in terms of studying the origins of supermassive black holes or identifying faint radio waves to understand the characteristics of planets outside the solar system. 

In November, Chinese state media reported that in 2021, the FAST facility would become open to use for foreign scientists. 

The National Astronomical Observatory under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which oversees FAST, did not immediately respond to comment.

Before and after shots of the Arecibo telescope.

There were some functions that Arecibo’s telescope could do that FAST can’t, however.

“For observation within the solar system, Arecibo was able to transmit signals and receive their reflections from planets, a function that FAST isn’t able to complete on its own. The feature allowed Arecibo to facilitate monitoring of near-Earth asteroids, which is important in defending the Earth from space threats,” Liu Boyang, a researcher in radio astronomy at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, University of Western Australia, told the South China Morning Post

As Business Insider reported earlier in the week, China has made significant strides within the space race as the US has suffered a setback.

China’s Chang’e-5 probe landed on the moon this week, collected lunar samples and the samples have made it back to its orbiter, which will start the process of a weeks-long journey back to earth to deliver the samples. Today, Chinese state media and NASA shared images of China planting its flag on the moon.

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