Mankind has by no means seen the sky within the longest wavelengths. That might change with a brand new house telescope
Technological revolutions can bring about dramatic changes in various areas, some of which are only tangentially related to the area being disrupted. Occasionally, several technological revolutions happen simultaneously, enabling concepts that would not have been possible without them. Such revolutions are currently taking place in the space industry. With more massive rockets than ever coming online and mega constellations of satellites streaking our skies, disruption abounds. Now a team at MIT hopes to use these technologies to study a field of astronomy that has never been seen before — low-frequency radio astronomy.
Huge radio telescopes like the now-decommissioned Arecibo have one major drawback — they’re on Earth. Our ionosphere cleanly blocks the very low frequency radio spectrum from frequencies from 100 kHz to around 15 MHz. So while these giant telescopes are theoretically capable of picking up these signals, none of them make it through the ionosphere to pick them up.
Alternatively, telescopes in space would be perfectly capable of picking up these low frequencies. To do so, however, they would have to be absolutely massive – on the order of hundreds of meters in diameter, which currently far exceeds even the most powerful proposed rockets. So far, building a radio telescope to detect low-frequency signals in space has been a false start.
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There are other places in the solar system that could support an interferometer – like the far side of the moon.
But maybe there is an alternative. Newer radio telescopes like MeerKAT use a technique called interferometry. Rather than requiring a colossal telescope, interferometry telescopes use a series of small telescopes linked by the laws of physics and mathematics to detect low-frequency radio waves that would normally only be seen by giant detectors.
What Mary Krupp and her team at MIT have proposed seems like a logical next step – why not build an interferometric telescope in space? Their project, known as the Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths or, as astronomers love acronyms, Go-LoW, was recently funded by NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, and its premise is relatively simple.
Take a MeerKAT-like interferometric system and launch it to the L5 Lagrange point. The Idea takes ideas from some recent technological advances and combines them. The first would be how to manufacture hundreds of thousands of satellites inexpensively.
Discussion of the MeerKAT telescope, an interferometer currently in use here on Earth.
Credit – CreamerMedia YouTube Channel
They rely on the technologies that SpaceX developed for their Starlink megaconstellation. The 40,000+ satellites planned have significantly reduced the cost of small satellite components, making it economically feasible to build that many satellites without breaking the bank.
The second technological development is the advent of heavy launch vehicles. Starship or SLS power can launch thousands of satellites to the Earth-Sun L5 Lagrange point, about 1.5 million kilometers away. While this isn’t necessarily cheap, it certainly isn’t as expensive as previous generations.
Now seems like an ideal time for such an idea, although NIAC is known for supporting projects in the very early stages. The MIT team will work on conceptual aspects of the mission in this Phase I grant, which will last nine months. Ultimately, they hope to have a roadmap to make the project a reality over the next 10-20 years. You could catch this technological wave at the right time and change our understanding of radio astronomy forever.
NASA / MIT – Great Observatory for Long Wavelengths (GO-LoW)
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Artist’s rendering of the GoLOW swarm.
Credit – Mary Knapp/MIT/NASA