Space Buying Real Estate on the Moon
As businesses eye the lunar landscape, astronomers fret about losing the last quiet place within reach
the barren moon is ripe for development.
A cellphone company is hoping to install outposts for service there. Chinese graduate students are living in simulated moon colonies. And President Donald Trump wants America to return there in the early 2020s. All these plans would interfere with the one many astronomers dream of: radio telescopes.
Radio waves, the longest in the electromagnetic spectrum, can cross the entire universe. That feature makes them the best hope scientists have for studying the beginning of the cosmos. Radio telescopes can pick up faint signals from distant space, giving us clues to how the universe works. The moon, say radio astronomers, is ideal for that work. “The far side of the moon,” says Joseph Silk, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, “is the best place in the entire inner solar system.”
On Earth, where the seven continents host more than 100 radio telescopes, those signals have an increasing amount of competition; humans use radio waves to communicate, drowning out the sounds of the universe.
Astronomers working with the Federal Communications Commission, which divvies up the radio band, are pushing to keep science a priority. But such agreements can’t save radio astronomy from all the interference.
That’s where the moon comes in. The logistics are extremely challenging: Humans haven’t even set foot on the moon since 1972. But Silk argues that building the infrastructure needed for moon telescopes would fit fairly smoothly into current Trump administration plans to return to there. Robots could accomplish much of the construction work, says Silk, who imagines covering a large area with telescopes. “In principle,” he says, “there should be no reason why we can’t do this.”
Except for all the would-be lunar businesses. These new “space opportunities,” as Jill Tarter, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, which is dedicated to finding intelligent life, calls them, “could very well pollute [the moon] before we get a chance to exploit it for radio astronomy.”
To save our last chance for radio silence, commercial interests could establish a radio wavelength timeshare with astronomers, says Tarter. “The only opportunity that we have for that kind of thinking,” she says, “is the moon.”
“The far side of the moon is the best place in the entire inner solar system.”