Lunar science is entering a new active phase, with commercial launches of landers that will study the solar wind and peer into the dark ages of the universe

For the first time since 1972, NASA will set up 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 possibilities. As part of several projects starting this year, teams of scientists, including myself, will conduct radio astronomy from the south pole and 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 previous space programs. Instead of NASA building the landers and operating the program, commercial companies will do so in a public-private partnership. NASA has identified a dozen companies that will serve as suppliers for landers heading to the moon.

NASA buys space on these landers so that scientific payloads can fly to the moon, and the companies design, build and insure the landers, and contract with rocket companies for the launches. Unlike in the past, NASA is one of the customers and not the only driver.

CLPS is launched

The first two CLPS payloads are expected to launch in the first two months of 2024. There’s the Astrobotics payload, which launched on January 8 before a fuel problem aborted the trip to the moon. Next up is the Intuitive Machines payload, with a launch scheduled for mid-February. NASA also has a few additional landings planned – about two or three per year – for the coming years.

I am a radio astronomer and co-investigator of NASA’s ROLSES program, also known as radio wave observations at the lunar surface of the photoelectron sheath. ROLSES was built by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and is led by Natchimuthuk Gopalswamy.

The ROLSES instrument will be launched in February together with Intuitive Machines. Between ROLSES and another mission planned in two years on the far side of the moon, 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 can become distorted or not even reach the Earth’s surface.

On Earth, there are also TV signals, satellite broadcasts and defense radar systems that make noise. To make observations with higher sensitivity, you have 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 in the moon” side – and the other side, the other side, always faces away from Earth. The moon has no ionosphere, and with about 3,000 kilometers of rock between Earth and the far side of the moon, there is no interference. It’s radio silent.

For our first mission with ROLSES, launching in February 2024, we will collect data on environmental conditions on the moon near its south pole. On the moon’s surface, the solar wind hits the moon’s surface directly and creates a charged gas called plasma. Electrons lift the negatively charged surface and form a highly ionized gas.

On Earth this does not happen because the magnetic field deflects the solar wind. But there is no global magnetic field on the moon. A low-frequency radio telescope like ROLSES will allow us to measure that plasma for the first time, which could help scientists figure out how to keep astronauts safely on the moon.

When astronauts walk around on the moon’s surface, they pick up different charges. It’s like walking across the carpet with your socks on: when you reach for a doorknob, a spark can come from your finger. A similar discharge occurs on the moon due to the charged gas, but is potentially more harmful to astronauts.

Radio emissions from solar energy and exoplanets

Our team will also use ROLSES to look at the sun. The surface of the Sun releases shock waves that emit highly energetic particles and low radio frequency emissions. We will use the radio telescopes to measure these emissions and see bursts of low-frequency radio waves that come from shock waves in the solar wind.

We will also examine Earth from the surface of the moon and use that process as a template for looking at radio emissions from exoplanets that may harbor life in other galaxies.

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

In the future, our team hopes to use specialized antenna arrays on the far side of the moon to observe nearby stellar systems known to contain exoplanets. If we detect the same kind of radio emissions coming from Earth, this will tell us that the planet has a magnetic field. And we can measure the strength of the magnetic field to find out if it is strong enough to protect life.

Cosmology on the moon

The Lunar Surface Electromagnetic Experiment at Night, or LuSEE-Night, will fly to the far side of the moon in early 2026. LuSEE-Night marks scientists’ first attempt at doing cosmology on the moon.

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

Because the far side of the moon is uniquely radio silent, it is the best place to make cosmological observations. During the two-week lunar night that occurs every fortnight, there is no emission from the sun and no ionosphere.

We hope to study an unexplored part of the early universe, the Dark Ages. The dark ages refer to before and just after the formation of the very first stars and galaxies in the universe, which goes 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. That hydrogen radiates through the universe at low radio frequencies, and when new stars ignite, they ionize the hydrogen, creating 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 for us to study in this last undiscovered 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 unexplored era.

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

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Jack Burns, University of Colorado Boulder

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Jack Burns receives funding from NASA.

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