Using the moon as a platform

On Feb. 22, Odysseus landed on the moon – the first NASA lander to do so in more than 50 years. And on it, packed in an eight-inch canister for the journey, the first lunar radio telescope.

Cornell astronomer Jake Turner is a science advisor on the radio telescope experiment, and I wrote about the project in mid-February.

“I’m really glad to see this resurgence of people wanting to use the moon, not only to study but to use as a platform for other missions,” Turner told me. “It’s a Goldilocks zone; it’s relatively easy for us humans to get there, compared to other places, and it does have some advantages. It has a solid surface for landings, and eventually people want to use it as a base for Mars and beyond.”

The moon is also “just right” for observing Earth’s radio signature.

Jake’s idea, in collaboration with many others, is to eventually place a radio telescope on the far side of the moon to get beyond interference from Earth – a sort of astronomical tripod. The radio device that flew with Odysseus, called ROLSES (Radio wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photo-electron Sheath), is a very preliminary step.

Among the jobs ROLSES was tasked with on its lunar mission: look toward Earth from the moon’s south pole region and take a radio frequency portrait scientists can use as a template for “small, rocky, habitable planet” during future observations of worlds in other star systems.

To learn more about the science, you can read my feature in the Cornell Chronicle, which posted Feb. 14, the day before the IM-1 mission launched.

Also check out Jake’s 2/14 Twitter thread with so many more great stories (and visuals) than I could have included in the article.

Here I have some space to write about why I feel personally invested in this little device made of four eight-foot antennas.

My ears perk up when I hear “radio.”

It’s familiar, right?

“We humans just love to communicate using radio,” Jake said. The results of all our talk radio, Top Forty countdowns, cellphone chatter and television broadcast actually interfere with radio telescopes, showing up as a faint – but potentially misleading line – in the telescope data.

For this reason, the Earth-as-exoplanet portrait ROLSES will send us is also Earth-as-SETI target. That is, looking back at our own planet in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as if someone lives here…but not us.

That gives me chills.

Astronomers may one day study the magnetic fields of Earth-like planets using radio telescopes from the far side of the moon. Foundation for this work will be done by NASA’s ROLSES mission, which will observe Earth as an exoplanet in the radio from the south pole of the moon. Jack Madden Ph.D. ’19 hand-painted this artistic rendering to illustrate the concept. Jack Madden, Ph.D. ’19, Cornell University

Science is a long game.

Nearly every science story I write emphasizes the need for patience through small, incremental advances.

So you want to detect and study exoplanets using radio telescopes? It’s going to take decades, but you have to start somewhere. That somewhere is ROLSES this year, and another radio telescope set to launch next year. Beyond that, several radio telescope projects are proposed to NASA – but not yet promised.

And if they don’t? Or if the ROLSES canister didn’t deploy? Or it did get out and something went wrong?

Try again.

Astronomers live on earth. They just see farther than the rest of us.

When I interview astronomers, sometimes catch myself thinking that they are out space like the instruments they operate or the objects they study: Oh, you’re not on the James Webb Space Telescope…you’ve never actually been to Jupiter…

They know so much about objects that are mind-bendingly distant, sometimes removed not just in space but in time, it’s hard to believe they live and work on Earth like the rest of us.

This perspective warp helps me with a dose of humility: We are, after all, human. And a shot of admiration: from these human bodies and minds, we can accomplish so much.

Writing about a lunar lander knocked down some geographical limitations in my mind, like when I ran through a desert and a wilderness last spring. Writing about Jake Turner and ROLSES, I started to think about and appreciate a geography beyond Earth, and what it must have been like – and what it will be like in the future – for people to stand on the moon.

With this in mind, I can join in the wonder of not just seeing, but being there. Part of the astonishment of the iconic Pale Blue Dot image, which the ROLSES mission calls to mind for me, is not just the sheer beauty of Earth as a mote in a sun beam, but the realization that ‘we got out far enough to take this.’

And that “we” includes our machines; human intelligence packed onto Voyager I or into an eight-inch canister. Human intelligence that can’t help but seek other intelligence.

Leave a Comment