Lunar science is entering a new active phase

Lunar science is entering a new active phase

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


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

For the first time since 1972, NASA is conducting scientific experiments on the Moon in 2024. And thanks to new technologies and public-private partnerships, these projects will open up new areas of scientific opportunity. As part of several projects starting this year, teams of scientists, including myself, will conduct radio astronomy from the south pole and the far side of the moon.

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program, or CLPS, will use unmanned landers to conduct NASA’s first science experiments from the Moon in more than 50 years. The CLPS program differs from past 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 vendors for the lunar landers.

NASA buys space on these landers for scientific payloads to fly to the Moon, and companies design, build and provide the landers, as well as contract with rocket companies for the launches. Unlike in the past, NASA is one of the customers, not the sole driver.

CLPS starts

The first two CLPS payloads are scheduled to launch during the first two months of 2024. It’s the Astrobotics payload, which launched on Jan. 8 before experiencing a fuel problem that cut short its trip to the moon. Next up is the Intuitive Machines load, with a launch slated for mid-February. NASA has also planned several additional landings – about two or three per year – for each of the next few years.

I’m a radio astronomer and co-investigator on NASA’s ROLSES program, otherwise known as PhotoElectron Cloak Lunar Surface Radio Observations. ROLSES was built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and is led by Natchimuthuk Gopalswamy.

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

Radio telescopes on the Moon

The moon – especially the far side of the moon – is an ideal place to do radio astronomy and study signals from extraterrestrial objects such as the sun and the Milky Way galaxy. On Earth, the ionosphere, which contains the Earth’s magnetic field, distorts and absorbs radio signals below the FM band. These signals may be scrambled or may not even reach the Earth’s surface.

CLPS will send scientific payloads to the Moon in connection with the crewed missions of the Artemis program.

On Earth, there are also television signals, satellite transmissions and defense radar systems that make noise. To make observations with higher sensitivity, you need to go into space, away from Earth.

The moon is what scientists call tidally locked. One side of the moon always faces Earth—the “man on the moon” side—and the other side, the far side, always faces away from Earth. The moon has no ionosphere, and with about 2,000 miles of rock between Earth and the far side of the moon, there is no interference. It’s radio quiet.

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

This does not 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’ll 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 around on the surface of the moon, they will pick up different payloads. It’s like walking across a carpet with socks on—when you reach for a doorknob, a spark can fly from your finger. The same type of discharge occurs on the Moon from charged gas, but is potentially more harmful to astronauts.

Solar and exoplanet radio emissions

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

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

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

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


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

In the future, our team hopes to use specialized antenna arrays on the far side of the moon to observe nearby star systems known to host exoplanets. If we detect the same kind of radio emissions coming from Earth, it will tell us that the planet has a magnetic field. And we can measure the strength of the magnetic field to understand 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 the first attempt by scientists to do cosmology on the Moon.

LuSEE-Night is a new collaboration between NASA and the Department of Energy. The data will be sent back to Earth using a communications satellite in lunar orbit, Lunar Pathfinder, which is funded by the European Space Agency.

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

We hope to study an unexplored part of the early universe called the dark ages. 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 dark 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. This hydrogen radiates through the universe at low radio frequencies, and when young stars ignite, they ionize the hydrogen, producing a radio signature in the spectrum. Our team hopes to measure that signal and learn how the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe formed.

There is also a lot of potential new physics that we can study in this last unexplored cosmological epoch in 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 uncharted epoch.

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

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