Looking back in time from the Moon

The Moon could become an orbiting observatory, allowing astronomers to peer back in time further than ever before. Nasa experts say that our natural satellite could house a powerful optical telescope with a liquid mirror – yes, you read that right – up to 100 metres wide.

A lunar observatoryIt comes after scientists previously made the case for a radio telescope on the Moon’s far side where it would be sheltered from interference from transmitters on Earth.

A lunar optical telescope with a mirror 20-100 metres across would be able to observe objects 100 to 1,000 times fainter than the James Webb space telescope, the planned successor to Hubble. Plus, of course, there are none of the clouds that can thwart ground-based observers.

Instead of having a solid mirror, astronauts would pour liquid onto a spinning disk-shaped mesh. The rotation would cause the liquid to take on a parabolic shape, similar to that in ordinary telescope mirrors.

Pete Worden, director of Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California, is co-author of a paper describing the novel telescope in the journal Nature this week. Worden says: “We have shown how the Moon is ideal for using liquid mirror technology to build a telescope much larger than we can affordably build in space. Such telescopes, perhaps 100 metres in diameter, can see back to the early phases of the universe after the Big Bang.”

The paper’s lead author is Ermanno Borra, of Laval University, in Quebec, Canada. Nasa’s Institute for Advanced Concepts is supporting his team’s research. It could form part of the agency’s Vision for Space Exploration, which Britain has been invited to partake in.

The idea for a radio telescope on the Moon was explained to Skymania News by Ian Morison, of Britain’s famous Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, England. He said: “There is no atmosphere on the Moon and, if you built a telescope on the far side, you could avoid radio interference from Earth and the ionosphere.

“It would be a wonderful place to carry out low-frequency observations which we are unable to do at the moment. That would allow us to learn more about the origin of the universe.”

The picture is a Nasa artist’s impression of a moonbase with radio telescope dish.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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