Sunday , April 18 2021

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As you drive down the road to the Jodrell Bank Observatory, a sign tells visitors to turn off their cell phones. The Lovell telescope is so powerful that it can detect telephone signals on Mars.

Radio telescopes are very sensitive. To quote the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan: “The total amount of energy from outside the solar system already received by all radio telescopes on planet Earth is less than the energy of a single snowflake hitting the ground.

The total energy may now be worth a few snowflakes, but it is true that astronomical radio signals are generally smaller than man-made signals. If Jodrell Bank can detect interference via telephone signals on Mars, what about the entire 4G network on the Moon?

This is a problem that worries astronomers like me, after Nokia received $ 14.1 million ($ 19.8 million) from America to develop the first mobile network on the moon. The LTE / 4G network was designed to facilitate long-term lunar habitability and allow communication for important aspects, such as lunar explorers and navigation.

Network error

Radio interference (RFI) is the long-standing enemy of radio astronomers. Jodrell Bank – the world’s first radio astronomer observatory – was founded as a result of the RFI. One of the pioneers of radio astronomy, Sir Bernard Lovell, found that his work in Manchester was hampered by radio interference from trams passing through the city and persuaded the University’s Department of Botany to bring it to a close two weeks later. Cheshire arrived too late to move (he never left).

Since then, an increasing number of radio telescopes have been built to prevent radio interference. The next Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope is being built in remote areas of South Africa and Australia. This eliminates many common sources of radio interference, including cell phones and microwave ovens. However, ground-based radio telescopes cannot completely avoid space-based radio sources, such as satellites – or future lunar telecommunications networks.

The RFI can be reduced at the source with adequate protection and precision in signal transmission. Astronomers continue to develop strategies to remove RFI from their data. However, they increasingly rely on the good faith of private companies to ensure that at least some radio frequencies are protected by astronomy.

The dream of many radio astronomers is to have a radio telescope on the other side of the moon. Not only is it protected from terrestrial signals, but it can also be observed at the lowest radio frequencies, which are particularly affected on Earth by a part of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere. Observations at low radio frequencies can help answer fundamental questions about the universe, such as the first moments after the big bang.

The scientific case is seen with the Dutch-Chinese low-frequency rover, a telescope redefined by the Queqiao relay satellite sent to the moon during the Chang’e 4 mission. NASA is also funding a lunar crater viability project on a wired radio telescope. .

Not just 4G

In addition to the interests of this radio project, NASA also has commercial partnerships. Nokia is just one of 14 American companies that partner with NASA in a new partnership round worth more than $ 370 million ($ 519 million) to develop the Artemis program, in which astronauts will work until the moon returns in 2024.

The involvement of private companies in space technology is not new. And there has been a long debate about good and evil. Perhaps the most striking is SpaceX’s Starlink satellite, which caused quite a stir among astronomers after its first major launch in 2019.

Images appeared quickly with traces of the Starlink satellite obscuring or overtaking the original astronomical target.

The artistic impression of SKA Mid’s planned African cuisine. Organization SKA, CC BY

Astronomers have long struggled with satellites, but the number and brightness of Starlinks is unprecedented and their orbits are difficult to predict. This concern applies to anyone who practices astronomy on land, whether optics or radio telescopes.

The SKA organization recently published an analysis of the impact of satellites on radio astronomy, which develops next-generation radio telescope technology over a distance of square kilometers. The SKA telescope is estimated to be 70% less sensitive in the radio groups used by Starlink for communications, provided that 6,400 Starlink satellites are eventually used.

As the space becomes more commercialized, the air is filled with an increasing volume of technology. That’s why it has never been more important to have regulations to protect astronomy. As we move through space, we can see it from our home on Earth.


Emma Alexander, PhD student in astrophysics, Manchester University

This article was published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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