NASA is finally advancing a space telescope that could track down dangerous asteroids before they strike Earth

neocam asteroid hunter spacecraft discovery nasa jpl caltech
An artist’s concept of the NEOCam asteroid-hunting mission.

NASA is finally moving forward with a space telescope that could spot asteroids heading dangerously close to Earth.

The Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission – NEO Surveyor, for short – has passed a key review, and NASA announced Friday that it’s moving it to the next stage of development. Now engineers can start building new parts for the telescope, thereby keeping the mission on track for a 2026 launch.

“I’m over the moon,” Amy Mainzer, who leads the project, told Insider. “We are excited to do our part to help cross the asteroid-impact issue off the world’s list of worries.”

To protect the planet from an incoming asteroid, experts estimate they’d need five to 10 years’ warning that a space rock was headed our way. Right now, an asteroid could easily approach Earth without anyone seeing it, since telescopes on the ground can only do limited surveillance.

“What you want to do is find them early, find them as early as possible – as in years, or even decades, before they pose a threat,” Paul Chodas, the manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, previously told Insider. “The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, and look what happened to them. We have a space program. And given enough time, we can do something about this threat.”

NEO Surveyor would help NASA catalogue nearby asteroids and chart their paths through the solar system, so that someday – if necessary – humanity may have a shot at destroying or deflecting any space rocks on a collision path with Earth.

For years, work on this kind of infrared telescope had been caught in “NASA mission limbo hell,” MIT astronomer Richard Binzel previously told Insider. Now the project is finally moving forward.

NASA needs a space telescope to defend Earth from city-crushing asteroids

asteroid earth fly by
An artist’s illustration of asteroids flying by Earth.

Experts from around the world practiced for a hypothetical asteroid strike in April. It didn’t go well.

At the Planetary Defense Conference, a group of 200 participants from about two dozen countries worked through a hypothetical scenario in which an asteroid was set to crash into Earth in six months. They determined that no existing technologies could stop the space rock, since the time frame was too short to launch a mission that could destroy or deflect an asteroid.

Without a space telescope like NEO Surveyor, it’s very possible that an asteroid could sneak up on our planet like the one in the April simulation. It has already happened a few times.

In 2013, a house-sized asteroid screamed into the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia and exploded. The blast sent out a shock wave that broke windows, damaged buildings, and injured more than 1,400 people. No one on Earth saw it coming. That same day, a larger asteroid came within 17,000 miles of the planet.

asteroid russia Chelyabinsk
A house-sized asteroid entered the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Jim Bridenstine, who served as the Trump administration’s NASA Administrator, said in 2019 that the agency’s modeling suggests an event like the Chelyabinsk meteor occurs about every 60 years.

But the Chelyabinsk rock was small – about 50 feet wide. In 2019, a 427-foot, “city-killer” space rock flew within 45,000 miles of Earth, and NASA had almost no warning about that either.

Then last August, an asteroid the size of a car passed closer to Earth than any known space rock had ever come without crashing. It missed our planet by about 1,830 miles. Astronomers didn’t know the asteroid existed until about six hours after it whizzed by. Nobody saw it coming, because it was approaching from the direction of the sun.

Telescopes on the ground can only observe the sky at night, which means they miss almost everything that flies at us from the sun. NEO Surveyor, from its perch in Earth’s orbit, would be able to spot such space rocks. Since it would use infrared light, it could also spot asteroids that are too dark for Earth-based telescopes.

asteroid belt vega
An artist’s concept of an asteroid belt.

Plans for this kind of space telescope have been in the works since 2005, when Congress mandated that NASA find and track 90% of all near-Earth objects 140 meters (460 feet) or larger in size. That’s big enough to obliterate a city like New York.

The initial deadline was 2020. But NASA has only spotted about 40% of those objects so far. NEO Surveyor is designed to bring the agency up to its 90% goal within a decade of launch.

“Every day we wait is one day less that we have the information we need to make a response,” said Binzel, who studies potentially hazardous asteroids. “What that means is, for now, we are relying on luck to keep us safe from major asteroid impacts. But luck is not a plan.”

The NEO Surveyor team is forging ahead – maybe with a budget boost

Mainzer first submitted the idea for an asteroid-hunting space telescope in 2006. NASA declined to take it on as a mission, funding other projects instead. She submitted proposals in 2010 and 2015 as well, but the agency kept passing.

NEO Surveyor finally became an official NASA mission in 2019. Since then, the project has been in what NASA calls “Phase A” – a stage focusing on design and technology development. Now that they’re moving on to Phase B, Mainzer and her team can start building prototypes and developing hardware and software.

They could soon get a major influx of cash, too. NASA’s budget request for 2022 allots $197 million for planetary defense, including $143 million for NEO Surveyor – though Congress must still approve it.

That would be a significant increase from the $28 million the mission received in 2021. NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen estimated in 2019 that developing the telescope could cost about $500 to $600 million in total.

The budget request and Friday’s Phase B approval are “double good news for citizens of planet Earth,” Binzel said, though he added that now, “the ball in squarely in Congress’ court.”

“The clock is ticking,” Mainzer said. “We really want to get off the ground as quickly as possible.”

Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.

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A space telescope that could protect Earth from asteroids has been stuck in ‘NASA mission limbo hell’ – but it may finally escape

neocam asteroid hunter spacecraft discovery nasa jpl caltech
An artist’s concept of an asteroid-hunting space telescope.

An asteroid big enough to wipe out a city could be careening towards Earth right now, and it’s very possible nobody would notice until too late.

As far as we know, that isn’t happening – the odds of a large space rock striking the planet are low. Still, researchers agree that it will occur eventually, which is why experts from around the world practiced for this possibility last month.

The results were unencouraging. At the Planetary Defense Conference, a group of 200 participants from about two dozen countries worked through a hypothetical scenario in which an asteroid was set to crash into Earth in six months. They determined that no existing technologies could stop the space rock, since the time frame was too short to launch a mission that could destroy or deflect an asteroid.

To successfully protect the planet from such a threat, experts estimate, they’d need five to 10 years’ warning.

“What you want to do is find them early, find them as early as possible – as in years, or even decades, before they pose a threat,” Paul Chodas, the manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, told Insider. “The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, and look what happened to them. We have a space program. And given enough time, we can do something about this threat. It’s one of the few natural threats we actually have the technology to basically mitigate.”

NASA intends to catalogue nearby asteroids over time and chart their paths through the solar system, so that someday – if necessary – humanity could have a shot at destroying or deflecting any space rocks headed for Earth. But to do that, the agency needs a space telescope that doesn’t exist yet. Called the NEO Surveyor Mission (NEO stands for near-Earth object), it’s scheduled to launch into Earth’s orbit in 2026.

At least, that’s the tentative timeline. For years, work on this kind of infrared telescope has been caught in “NASA mission limbo hell,” according to MIT astronomer Richard Binzel. No proposal has progressed beyond early development, so engineers and scientists haven’t started building any such telescope for flight yet, much less preparing for launch.

“Every day we wait is one day less that we have the information we need to make a response,” Binzel, who studies potentially hazardous asteroids, told Insider. “What that means is, for now, we are relying on luck to keep us safe from major asteroid impacts. But luck is not a plan.”

However, NASA conducted a critical review of the NEO Surveyor last month, which should determine whether the mission will finally get funding to move forward. Amy Mainzer, who leads the project, told Insider it “seemed to go well,” but NASA has not announced its decision yet.

NASA needs to find any asteroids big enough to crush a city

asteroid earth fly by
An artist’s illustration of asteroids flying by Earth.

In August, an asteroid the size of a car passed closer to Earth than any known space rock had ever come without crashing. It missed our planet by about 1,830 miles.

Astronomers didn’t know the space rock existed until about six hours after it whizzed by.

Because of its small size, that asteroid probably wouldn’t have posed any danger had it struck – it would have burnt up in the atmosphere. But its surprise visit highlighted a major blind spot: Nobody saw it coming because it was approaching from the direction of the sun. Telescopes on the ground can only observe the sky at night, which means they miss almost everything that flies at us from the sun.

By scouting from a position in space, the NEO Surveyor would be able to look towards the sun. And since it would use infrared light, it could also spot asteroids that are too dark for Earth-based telescopes.

But the mission is no guarantee. Plans for this kind of a space telescope have been in the works since 2005, when Congress mandated that NASA find and track 90% of all near-Earth objects 140 meters (460 feet) or larger in size. That’s big enough to obliterate a city like New York.

The initial deadline was 2020. According to Chodas, NASA has only spotted about 40% of those objects so far.

‘Stuck in the same place we have been for at least 5 years’

asteroid belt vega
An artist’s concept of the asteroid belt.

NASA turned down a similar asteroid-tracking space telescope mission – called NEOCam – three times.

Mainzer first submitted the idea in 2006, but NASA declined to take it on as an official mission. The agency passed again when she submitted another proposal in 2010. NASA did, however, allot some funding to develop technology for the telescope’s electronic detectors.

Then came a reminder from space. In 2013, a house-sized asteroid screamed into the skies above Chelyabinsk, Russia and exploded. The blast sent out a shock wave that broke windows, damaged buildings, and injured more than 1,400 people. No one on Earth saw it coming. That same day, a larger asteroid came within 17,000 miles of the planet.

Jim Bridenstine, who served as the Trump administration’s NASA Administrator, said in 2019 that the agency’s modeling suggests an event like the Chelyabinsk meteor occurs about every 60 years.

asteroid russia Chelyabinsk
A house-sized asteroid entered the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013.

Mainzer proposed the NEOCam mission once more in 2015, to little avail, though NASA did grant the telescope an extra year of funding for further development. NEOCam never became an official NASA mission.

Then, several years later, another near miss: A 427-foot-wide, “city-killer” space rock flew within 45,000 miles of Earth in 2019. NASA had almost no warning about it.

Two months later, the agency announced that it was officially taking on a new mission called NEO Surveyor – which sounded a lot like NEOCam, just with a different name and some different team members.

“While NEO Surveyor is based on the previous NEOCam concept, it is more closely focused on planetary defense requirements,” a NASA spokesperson told Insider in a statement.

Binzel called the decision “a huge step forward,” though it has yet to move past early development. NEO Surveyor is still in what NASA calls “Phase A” – a stage focusing on design and technology development.

The team has been designing infrared camera chips and planning how to load the telescope onto a rocket, according to Mainzer.

“We really just tried to focus on the technical work and making sure that we can do the best job that we can, so that when we do get into Phase B, we can hit the ground running,” she said.

Binzel said a lot of the holdup has to do with NASA’s budget.

“The sticking point is in Congressional appropriations,” he said. “NASA has repeatedly and publicly said ‘we’re ready to do this.’ But it never gets appropriated in the budget.”

To move NEO Surveyor forward, Binzel added, NASA’s planetary-defense program would need about $225 million per year. Last year it got $150 million.

“My sense is that asteroid impacts are so unlikely in a two-year Congressional term, they don’t get much focus,” he said.

NASA is deciding whether to move NEO Surveyor forward

asteroid belt vega
An artist’s concept of the asteroid belt.

If NASA decides that the NEO Surveyor Mission is ready for Phase B, the team could then start building prototypes and developing hardware and software.

“The NEO Surveyor project will be notified of the outcome in the coming weeks,” the NASA spokesperson said.

NASA’s budget request for 2022 allots $197 million for planetary defense, including $143 million for NEO Surveyor, but Congress must still approve it. That would be a significant increase in funding from the $28 million the mission received in 2021. NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen estimated in 2019 that the telescope could cost about $500 to $600 million in total.

“The budget for planetary defense is able to move NEO Surveyor through Phase B,” NASA said.

Mainzer said that if the project does move ahead to the next phase, the team would be on track for a 2026 launch. Otherwise, the mission could be delayed further. NEO Surveyor was originally set to launch in 2025, but that’s already been bumped back.

“I think this mission is the right thing to do,” Mainzer said. “This is not a problem that people should stay awake worrying about at night, but it’s something we’d like to cross off our list.”

Aylin Woodward contributed reporting.

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The most detailed map yet of all dark matter in the universe reveals cosmic voids where the laws of physics seem not to apply

dark matter map
Earth-based telescopes like the Victor M. Blanco Telescope dome in Chile have helped scientists map our universe.

  • Astronomers have created the most comprehensive map yet of all dark matter in the universe.
  • Though invisible, scientists can measure dark matter’s gravity because it pulls galaxies into clumps.
  • The new map indicates dark matter’s gravity may work differently than Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Astronomers have created the most comprehensive map yet of all the dark matter in the universe.

That’s no easy feat, considering dark matter is invisible. Scientists know this shadowy cousin of regular matter exists, though, because its strong gravitational forces can pull entire galaxies together. Based on observations of its influence, astronomers estimate that dark matter makes up one-quarter of the universe.

The new map is the product of years of work by a group of 400 scientists from seven countries, known as the Dark Energy Survey (DES). They pointed the Victor M. Blanco Telescope in Chile skyward to peek at millions of galaxies bound together by dark matter. The distribution of those galaxies, and the ways in which light from them reaches Earth, can inform astronomers about how much dark matter sits between those galaxies and our planet.

In a series of studies published this week, the team showed that the universe is peppered with giant clusters of galaxies bunched together – regions where dark matter, too, is densely packed. But their map, which covers about one-eighth of the sky as seen from Earth, also documents patches of the universe that are nearly devoid of both dark matter and galaxies. These cluttered and empty areas appear to be connected by interstellar gas in a cosmic web.

“It shows us new parts of the universe that we’ve never seen before. We can really see this cosmic web structure, including these enormous structures called cosmic voids, which are very low-density regions of the universe where there are very few galaxies and less matter,” Niall Jeffrey, a cosmologist at University College London, told the Guardian.

The photo below shows a section of the new map; the voids are in black, while the galaxy clusters are bright orange.

dark matter map
A zoomed-in view of the Dark Energy Survey’s dark matter map.

According to Jeffrey, the new findings suggest that gravity may not work the same way in these voids as it does on Earth, which would mean the standard laws of physics do not apply.

Light from 226 million galaxies

While dark matter is unobservable, the force it exerts on other things in the universe helps scientists detect it.

Dark matter bends light coming toward Earth from other galaxies, a bit like a kaleidoscope. So by measuring the intensity of that distortion, astronomers can calculate how much dark matter sits between us and another galaxy, and how smushed together that dark matter is. If a galaxy’s light is very distorted, it suggests the invisible dark matter obscuring it from view is densely clumped.

dark matter map
The DES dark matter map (in purple) superimposed on an image of the Milky Way galaxy.

So Jeffrey and his team looked at how light from more than 226 million galaxies, both nearby and billions of miles away, was getting distorted.

They used the telescope to capture images of those galaxies for 345 nights between 2013 and 2016, then relied on an artificial-intelligence program to translate those observations into their detailed map of dark matter.

The team collected data on another 413 nights before the survey ended 2019, so DES scientists plan to create an even larger, more detailed dark-matter map using the rest of their observations.

The map suggests Einstein might have been wrong

According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravity should have caused chunks of matter in the universe to clump up in a predictable way after the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago.

But according to Jeffrey, the DES map suggests Einstein’s theory may have missed the mark to some degree.

“If you look out into the universe, the matter isn’t as clumpy as expected – there are hints that it is smoother,” Jeffrey told the Guardian.

“It may seem a relatively small thing,” he added, “but if these hints are true, then it may mean there’s something wrong with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, one of the great pillars of physics.”

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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.

ARECIBO_BEFOREAFTER.skitch2
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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