Since humanity began twiddling thumbs and contemplating ideas, we’ve questioned where we come from — how it all began.
With leadership from a CU Boulder professor, a NASA program is attempting to answer those questions by peering into the universe’s past from the far side of the moon.
In April, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program awarded Lunar Resources, a space-industrial company in Houston, a contract for its FarView observatory, a radio-based array on the far side of the moon. Built almost entirely from natural resources found on the moon’s surface, FarView will give scientists a clear look at the beginning of the cosmos and a path forward to moon exploration.
The FarView team’s chief scientist is Jack Burns, a professor in the department of astrophysical and planetary sciences at CU Boulder. For Burns, the forward-moving study and concept is a dream built in the ’70s.
“We’re almost half a century late,” Burns jokes. “I’ve been championing this for almost 40 years. Now I am no longer the lone voice in the wilderness.”
Opening new windows
When construction is complete, FarView will use more than 100,000 dipole antennas to create the largest and most-powerful low-frequency telescope ever created. The 77-square-mile apparatus will use radio waves to study the composition, structure and motion of planets, stars and galaxies.
“We’re opening up two new windows to the universe,” Burns says. “One is the window to the electromagnetic spectrum: the last unopened window at low-rating frequencies. We have telescopes and observatories that operate at X-ray, gamma ray and ultraviolet, but at this low-rated frequency, you have to go to the opposite side of the moon in order for it to be radio-quiet.”
There is ever-growing radio pollution on Earth, with lower-frequency devices such as circuit breakers, transformers and power generators blocking incoming emissions. Receiving and studying low-frequency emissions is impossible as all incoming waves bounce back. The far side of the moon never faces Earth and has no ionosphere — which reflects radio waves — making it the perfect place to study those frequencies.
The second window Burns hopes to open will peer into the time before the formation of the very first star, something impossible before. Because there were no stars, infrared telescopes like the James Webb can’t pick up frequencies from this time. However, hydrogen gas present during the formation of stars gives off low-frequency radio emissions that the FarView array could pick up.
“As humans, we’ve always wondered where we’ve come from. How was the sun formed? How did the Earth form?” Burns says. “Once we can understand how the first stars were formed, we can better understand how the Milky Way formed, and potentially life itself.”
One small step for space travel
Adding to the excitement of looking into the formation of the universe, the development of the FarView observatory would be a significant step into space travel and, potentially, colonization.
With rovers, NASA will extract aluminum from the moon’s surface using an electrolysis process. Aluminum-plated antennas will be fixed onto the surface of the moon, using only remotely operated robots.
“All of these technologies we’ve developed can be used for other things,” Burns says. “You can build habitats and solar power stations for laboratories and mining facilities. All of this is a stepping stone in the big picture. Exploring the moon and how to live and manufacture on the moon will feed forward to going to Mars later in the century.”
The current study is to further this technology, ensuring it would be feasible before launching the official creation of FarView.
But, if scientists like Burns have been fighting for this since the ’70s, why hasn’t it happened?
That’s a matter of interest and finance.
After President Richard Nixon canceled the Apollo program in 1970, interest in moon exploration waned significantly. But now that private sector companies like SpaceX have started diving into the realm, it’s become more affordable and efficient, leading to increased interest in the moon as a stepping stone to more extensive space travel.
“If you would have told me in 1972 that it would have taken 50 years to get back to the moon, I would have never believed it,” Burns says. “Now, the conditions are right, so we can make moon and space exploration sustainable. Companies and other countries are collaborating, making it much easier on U.S. taxpayers.”
“This isn’t science fiction,” he says. “This is real life. This is happening.”
De facto gatekeeper
But beyond the pursuit of knowledge is concern around what establishing a presence on the moon’s surface means for geopolitics.
Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the Air and Space Law Program at the University of Mississippi, says a country positioning itself on the moon, even for purely scientific purposes, could be a violation of international space law.
“The issue is [the U.S. is] not the only country that wants to use space resources to build things,” she says. “China isn’t going to take bricks from the Great Wall up to the moon to build their base … And now, with FarView, you are talking about building an actual structure on the moon. That, by definition, is in violation of Article 2 of the Outer Space Treaty. It’s technically claiming territory.”
According to Article 2 of the treaty, which more than 100 countries signed in 1967, “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
In 2020, in part to bring more clarity to the Outer Space Treaty, NASA introduced the Artemis Accords, a non-binding, multilateral arrangement between world governments participating in the Artemis program, which focuses on returning humans to the moon and expanding space exploration to Mars and beyond. While the Accords are meant to foster cooperation and civility in space exploration, critics say they place too much power in the hands of the United States.
Two Canadian researchers, writing in Science magazine’s Policy Forum, said the Accords, “if accepted by many nations, could enable the U.S. interpretation of international space law to prevail and make the United States — as the licensing nation for most of the world’s space companies — the de facto gatekeeper to the Moon, asteroids, and other celestial bodies.”
Hanlon says claiming territory could build legal tension between nations, and work needs to be done to make laws more clear.
“The problem with space law is that it’s entirely academic,” Hanlon says. “Many are used to space being these deep-think, what-could-be ideas. But now we’re here. It’s not hypothetical. This is the transition we are looking at, and it’s very frustrating that people aren’t aware of what’s going on. We need to get it out of academia.”
Moving forward, Hanlon isn’t against the idea of FarView, but says humanity should move forward together.
“We need to do this as a species, not sovereign nations,” she says.
FarView is an early-stage project, going through a two-year design study. If everything goes as planned, the construction could begin as soon as 2030.