Monday, February 26, 2024
Monday, February 26, 2024
HomeScienceLunar science enters a new active phase

Lunar science enters a new active phase


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The Intuitive Machines payload, which will contain materials for ROLSES, is shown on the lunar surface in an illustration. Intuitive Machines, Inc.

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The Intuitive Machines payload, which will contain materials for ROLSES, is shown on the lunar surface in an illustration. Intuitive Machines, Inc.

For the first time since 1972, NASA will conduct scientific experiments on the Moon in 2024. And thanks to new technologies and public-private partnerships, these projects will open new realms of scientific possibilities. As part of several projects launching this year, teams of scientists, Including mewill carry out radio astronomy from the south pole and the far side of the moon.

from NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program., or CLPS, will use unmanned landers to conduct NASA’s first scientific experiments from the Moon in more than 50 years. The CLPS program differs from previous space programs. Instead of NASA building the landers and operating the program, commercial companies will do so in a public-private partnership. NASA identified about a dozen companies to serve as salesmen for landers that will go to the moon.

NASA buys space on these landers to scientific payloads fly to the moon, and the companies design, build and secure the landers, as well as hire rocket companies for the launches. Unlike in the past, NASA is one of the customers and not the only driver.

CLPS releases

The first two CLPS payloads are scheduled to launch during the first two months of 2024. There is the Astrobotics payloadwhich was released on January 8 before experiencing a fuel problem which shortened his trip to the moon. Next is the Intuitive Machines Payload, with a release scheduled for mid-February. NASA has also planned a some additional landings—about two or three per year—for each of the next few years.

I am a radio astronomer and NASA co-investigator ROLLES program, also known as Photoelectronic Sheath Observations of Radio Waves on the Lunar Surface. ROLSES was built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and is led by Natchimuthuk Gopalswamy.

The ROLSES instrument will be launched with Intuitive Machines in February. Between ROLSES and another mission scheduled for the far side of the Moon in two years, LuSEE-Night, our teams will land NASA’s first two radio telescopes on the Moon in 2026.

Radio telescopes on the moon

The Moon, particularly its far side, is an ideal place to practice radio astronomy and study signals from extraterrestrial objects such as the Sun and the Milky Way. On Earth, the ionosphere, which contains the Earth’s magnetic field, distorts and absorbs radio signals below the FM band. These signals could be scrambled or not even reach the Earth’s surface.


CLPS will send scientific payloads to the Moon alongside the Artemis program’s crewed missions.

On Earth there are also television signals, satellite transmissions and defense radar systems that make noise. To make more sensitive observations, you have to go to space, far from Earth.

The moon is what scientists call tide locked. One side of the Moon is always facing the Earth: the “man on the moon” side, and the other side, the far side, always faces away from the Earth. The Moon has no ionosphere, and with about 2,000 miles of rock between the Earth and the far side of the Moon, there is no interference. It is silent radio.

For our first mission with ROLSES, launching in February 2024, we will collect data on the moon’s environmental conditions near its south pole. On the surface of the moon, the solar wind hits the lunar surface directly and creates a charged gas, called a plasma. Electrons break away from the negatively charged surface to form a highly ionized gas.

This doesn’t happen on Earth because the magnetic field deflects the solar wind. But there is no global magnetic field on the Moon. With a low-frequency radio telescope like ROLSES, we will be able to measure that plasma for the first time, which could help scientists figure out how to keep astronauts safe on the Moon.

When astronauts walk on the surface of the moon, they will pick up different payloads. It’s like walking on a carpet with your socks on: when you reach for a doorknob, a spark may fly from your finger. The same type of discharge occurs on the Moon due to charged gas, but it is potentially more harmful to astronauts.

Solar radio emissions and exoplanets

Our team will also use ROLSES to watch the sun. The sun’s surface releases shock waves that send out highly energetic particles and low radio frequency emissions. We will use radio telescopes to measure these emissions and see bursts of low-frequency radio waves coming from shock waves within the solar wind.

We will also examine the Earth from the surface of the Moon and use that process as a model to observe radio emissions from exoplanets that may support life in other star systems.

Magnetic fields are important for life because they protect the planet’s surface from the solar/stellar wind.


LuSEE-Night, shown with its four antennas that will detect radio waves. Credit: Firefly Aerospace

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LuSEE-Night, shown with its four antennas that will detect radio waves. Credit: Firefly Aerospace

In the future, our team hopes to use specialized arrays of antennas on the far side of the Moon to observe nearby star systems that are known to have exoplanets. If we detect the same type of radio emissions that come from Earth, this will tell us that the planet has a magnetic field. And we can measure the strength of the magnetic field to determine if it is strong enough to protect life.

Cosmology on the moon

The lunar surface electromagnetic experiment at night, or LuSEE-Night, will fly in early 2026 to the far side of the Moon. LuSEE-Night marks scientists’ first attempt at doing cosmology on the moon.

LuSEE-Night is a novel collaboration between NASA and the Department of Energy. The data will be sent to Earth via a communications satellite in lunar orbit. lunar explorerwhich is funded by the European Space Agency.

Since the far side of the moon is exceptionally radio quiet, is the best place to make cosmological observations. During the two weeks of lunar night that occur every 14 days, there are no emissions from the sun and there is no ionosphere.

We hope to study an unexplored part of the early universe called Dark Age. The dark ages refer to before and just after the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the universe, which is beyond what the James Webb Space Telescope can study.

During the Middle Ages, the universe was less than 100 million years old; Today the universe is 13.7 billion years old. The universe was full of hydrogen during the dark ages. That hydrogen radiates through the universe at low radio frequencies, and when new stars light up, they ionize the hydrogen, producing a radio signature in the spectrum. Our team hopes to measure that signal and learn how the universe’s first stars and galaxies formed.

There is also a lot of potential new physics that we can study in this last unexplored cosmological epoch of the universe. We will investigate the nature of dark matter and early dark energy and test our fundamental models of physics and cosmology in an unexplored era.

That process will begin in 2026 with the LuSEE-Night mission, which is both a fundamental physics experiment and a cosmology experiment.



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