Let’s put hundreds of small satellites in lunar orbit acting together as one giant telescope to unravel some of the Universe’s best kept secrets. Sounds like science fiction? Professor Mark Bentum from the Eindhoven University of Technology, together with Dutch companies and institutes, is hard at work to make it happen...
‘Orbiting Low Frequency Antennas for Radio astronomy. It consists of a large number of radio antennas orbiting the moon. Working together in a swarm, they can observe the very early universe, from 377,000 years until about 1 billion years after the big bang. That’s when the first stars and galaxies formed.’
And to do this, they have to fly around the moon?
‘Correct. The Earth’s ionosphere blocks the wavelengths we are looking for and here on Earth people use the same wavelenghts for communication, which causes a lot of noise. In lunar orbit, the small satellites are shielded from all that noise. The best option would be to build a very large telescope on the surface of the dark side of the moon. Since this is extremely expensive, the next best thing is to put several small radio antennas in orbit and let them work together.’
How many satellites do you need to do valuable scientific research?
‘We started out with one little radio telescope antenna. It is launched as part of the Chinese Chang’e 4 lunar mission. In the next couple of years a consortium of Dutch research institutes and companies will build a handful. And after that, hopefully, hundreds.’
You would expect a project like this to originate in America...
‘On the contrary. The Netherlands has a long history in radio-astronomy, with institutes like ASTRON and the WSRT-telescopes at Westerbork. We also have top astronomers working at the Dutch universities. And companies like ISIS, T-Minus and Hyperion lead the way in the development of small satellites. I would say The Netherlands is the most logical place to develop and build a telescope like OLFAR.
What are you hoping to find?
‘The countours of the very early universe. We’d like to map the ‘dark ages’ to see if the theories astronomers came up with are valid. At the same time, OLFAR will be able to receive radiosignals from exoplanets with a magnetic field. Since a magnetic field is one of the important conditions for life to evolve, OLFAR might help us to get one step closer to answering a very big question: are we alone?’