Monster telescope planned for Moon

NASA scientists have found a way to make giant space telescopes out of moondust. They unveiled plans today to mix lunar soil with a chemical hardener to make a light-collecting mirror more than 50 metres wide.

The lunar brickworks
A NASA artist’s impression of a lunar brickworks, first extracting oxygen from the regolith, leaving the remainder for building materials.

A thin aluminium coating would make it reflective. The technique means astronauts will be able to build a powerful telescope on the Moon that would dwarf those at observatories on Earth.

It would collect and magnify light from distant objects in a similar way to a shaving mirror. But with the bonus of no atmosphere to cloud and distort the view, it will have unrivalled power.

NASA’s team say the monster scope could record rainbow-like spectra of planets around other stars and look for the ingredients for life in their atmospheres.

Two or more telescopes working together on different parts of the Moon could even take direct pictures of Earth-like planets around other stars and look for brightness variations that mark oceans or continents.

Scientists have previously proposed a giant telescope with a liquid mirror on the Moon. The lunar far side has also been recommended as an ideal site for a radio telescope array, shielded from radio interference found on Earth.

The dust-epoxy mix would be spun at high speed to give it the necessary parabolic shape, then coated with a film of aluminium to make it reflective. The material would also be useful for constructing the astronauts’ habitation and workshops.

The telescope plans were unveiled at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Missouri today by scientists working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.

Peter Chen, of Goddard, said: “We could make huge telescopes on the Moon relatively easily, and avoid the large expense of transporting a large mirror from Earth. Since most of the materials are already there in the form of dust, you don’t have to bring very much stuff with you, and that saves a ton of money.”

He added: “Constructing giant telescopes provides a strong rationale for doing astronomy from the Moon. We could also use this on-site composite material to build habitats for the astronauts, and mirrors to collect sunlight for solar-power farms.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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