A large array of hundreds of telescope modules programmed to detect very low frequency radio waves will be placed on the far side of the moon. Covering an area of approximately two square kilometers, the telescopes will be put into place by robotic vehicles.

The Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology (LARC) is a joint project of NASA and ten scientists from MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science. The goal of the project is to learn about the period of time just after the big bang when stars, star clusters and galaxies formed over a billion year period.

The big advantage in using the dark side of the moon, an area where made-made transmissions from Earth never reach, is avoidance of interference from Earth. Specifically, Earth’s ionosphere that contains electrically charged particles that would interfere with Earth based telescopes will be avoided, and the electromagnetic radiation produced by Earth’s ubiquitous array of radio and television stations will be blocked. Since low frequency emissions have long wavelengths, the telescopes need not be precisely positioned in order to gather the radio waves. Lunar dust, which might normally be a problem, will not be something that would impair the functioning of the telescopes. Data collected would test current theories of formation and evolution of the universe, particularly cosmic inflation. A secondary benefit would be to study coronal mass ejections from the Sun, which from time to time interrupt telecommunications on Earth and can interfere with satellite functionality. Construction would not begin until 2025 and would cost 1 billion dollars or more. NASA is awarding a $500,000 grant to develop a plan for deployment to the MIT team as well as a second team from the Naval Research Laboratory working independently on a similar plan.

Jacqueline Hewitt, director of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Science, stands behind a prototype of a radio telescope array planned for the far side of the moon.

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Jacqueline Hewitt, a researcher with MIT, spoke with Joe Palca on NPR’s Science Friday radio program regarding the project. The audio should be available soon here.

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