5 mins read 02 Nov 2022

Robots to Build Future Lunar Telescope

A collaboration between university students and industry engineers has resulted in a design for a lunar telescope that could be constructed on the Moon by robots.

A radio telescope built into a crater on the far side of the Moon would give unprecedented views of the early Universe. In this illustration, the receiver can be seen suspended over a wire mesh dish. Credit: Vladimir Vustyansky.

Physics and engineering students at the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne have been working with technology giant Leidos to design a telescope that could be put on the Moon. If built, such a telescope would be a tremendous benefit to astronomers studying the early Universe, and could even help answer the ultimate question: are we alone?  

The best views we have of the Universe come from our space-based observatories, like Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Without light pollution, an atmosphere, and clouds and weather, they can see clearly with uninterrupted views across most of the night sky.

The Moon is similarly free of these impediments, but it does present some of its own unique challenges. For starters, temperatures change by about 300oC between broad daylight and shadows. This is not ideal for sensitive electronic equipment.

If a telescope was placed on the far side of the Moon, there’d also be the problem of communicating with it, either to give it commands or download data. As the Apollo astronauts can attest to, radio signals simply cannot travel through the Moon and back to Earth.

But it is this fact that makes the lunar surface an ideal site for a radio telescope. The Earth is extremely noisy at radio wavelengths, due to both natural and human-made causes, however, a radio telescope placed on the far side of the Moon would be completely shielded from all that interference.

And while the size is a compromise for space-based telescopes like the JWST which needed to be designed to fold in on itself just to fit into the launch rocket, a radio telescope constructed in place on the Moon could have a dish that was not metres, but kilometres, across.

What would a telescope like this be able to see?

A huge lunar telescope would be able to explore the hydrogen clouds that preceded the first stars and galaxies, something that we have never seen before. And it would be able to probe exoplanets in such detail that it could detect the presence of an ocean or even the glow of a city at night.

The deeper we search for signs of alien life, the more likely we are to find it – if it exists.

But getting the necessary materials to the lunar surface is a complex and expensive undertaking, and even if that could be done, how would the telescope be built without a major human presence on the Moon? That’s where the students at Swinburne come in.

Building a Mega-Lunar-Scope

This image shows the timeline running from the Big Bang on the right towards the present on the left. In the middle is the Reionisation Period where the initial bubbles caused the cosmic dawn, a period that a lunar telescope may be able to probe. Credit: NASA/STScI.

Six final-year students, in collaboration with engineers at Leidos, have been considering the problem of how to design and construct such a lunar telescope. The work they’ve done has led to a prototype of a robot that could take on the role of a construction worker, albeit without the high-vis vest and hard hat.

The concept is that a lunar lander would set down close to a large crater on the far side of the Moon where it could deploy the robot. Robotics student Jadon Dutra explains the rest.

“The robot would take the wires from the lunar lander one kilometre across the crater, climb the other side of the crater wall and secure the wire on the other side, before repeating the task to weave a net for the telescope,” he says.

The robot packs up into a small space so it could easily be transported the roughly 400,000 km to the Moon. It has also been designed to be able to recover from minor mishaps or rollovers by driving upside down.

Once constructed, the images of the Universe returned by the telescope would be unprecedented. Dr Michelle Dunn is one of the Swinburne academics involved in the project and was enthusiastic about the potential science outcomes of the mega-project.  

“The far side of the moon has no atmosphere and is completely shielded from all the radio frequencies being emitted from Earth. This would give us an unobstructed view back in time to the earliest moments of our Universe,” Dr Dunn said.

“This telescope could give us insight into the fog of the cosmic dark ages, where a soup of particles turned into the galaxies, stars and celestial bodies we can observe today.”

The collaboration between academia and industry demonstrates the common desire for a lunar telescope to become a reality. With scientists and engineers solving all the practical challenges associated with the project, one major obstacle remains: cost.

But when we find the willingness to pay, we might just uncover some of the secrets of our cosmic origins.