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NASA thinks that giant moon crater telescope idea might work

The Lunar Crater Radio Telescope concept could peer into the "cosmic Dark Ages."

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This illustration shows what it might look like to build a radio telescope in a crater on the moon.

Vladimir Vustyansky

Our telescopes on Earth and in space may one day welcome a new companion: a massive telescope on the moon. What's extra clever about the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope idea is that the LCRT would use an existing crater on the moon's far side.

On Wednesday, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced the LCRT is receiving $500,000 in Phase II funding through NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program. While the LCRT isn't an official NASA mission yet, the funding round is a vote of confidence in the idea.

Last year, the LCRT earned $125,000 in Phase I funding to explore the concept of sending robots to the moon's far side to build a telescope out of wire mesh suspended in a crater. The moon is a tempting place to locate a telescope because it could shield the device from Earth's radio signals and it wouldn't have to contend with an atmosphere. 

"The LCRT's primary objective would be to measure the long-wavelength radio waves generated by the cosmic Dark Ages -- a period that lasted for a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, but before the first stars blinked into existence," JPL said in a statement

The LCRT would involve sending robots to deploy a half-mile (1 kilometer) wide antenna in a crater that's over 2 miles (3 kilometers) wide. NASA JPL's DuAxel rover could be the workhorse for this task. The rover can split in two, allowing one part to stay on the crater rim while the other goes rappelling to lay out the wires. 

The new funding round will allow the team to refine the design of the wire mesh, investigate how best to use the DuAxel rovers, and look into possible construction techniques. 

The LCRT is still in its very early stages, but it could have an impact beyond the moon. Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, a robotics technologist at JPL, is leading the research. 

"The development of this concept could produce some significant breakthroughs along the way," Bandyopadhyay said, "particularly for deployment technologies and the use of robots to build gigantic structures off Earth."

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