NRL astronomers selected for NASA's Lunar Science Institute

March 04, 2009

NASA has selected seven academic and research teams as initial members of the agency's Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), and Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) researchers will play a substantial role on one of the teams.

NRL is a leading institution supporting the "Lunar University Node for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR): Exploring the Cosmos from the Moon" team. Dr. Jack Burns at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is the principal investigator for this team. Dr. Joseph Lazio and Dr. Kurt Weiler from NRL's Remote Sensing Division head the NRL research effort on this project.

NRL's role will involve the strengthening the science case for, and advancing the technology of, a telescope on the Moon for peering into one of the last unexplored epochs in the Universe's history. The Lunar Radio Array (LRA) is an NRL-led concept for a telescope based on the Moon and studying an era of the young Universe, during the first 500 million years of its existence. Although the night sky is filled with stars, these stars did not form instantaneously after the Big Bang. There was an interval, now called the "Dark Ages," in which the Universe was unlit by any star. The most abundant element in the Universe, and the raw material from which stars, planets, and people are formed, is hydrogen. Fortunately, the hydrogen atom can produce a signal in the radio-wavelength part of the spectrum, at 21 cm; a wavelength far longer than what the human eye can detect. If these first signals from hydrogen atoms in the Dark Ages can be detected, astronomers can essentially probe how the first stars, the first galaxies, and ultimately the modern Universe evolved.

Because the Universe is expanding, the signals from these distant hydrogen atoms will be stretched (or redshifted) to much longer wavelengths, as large as several meters. While astronomical observations at radio wavelengths have a long history, this portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is now heavily used for various civil and military transmissions, all of which are millions of times brighter than the hydrogen signal that astronomers seek to detect. Additionally, the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere are ionized (the ionosphere), which introduce distortions into astronomical signals as they pass through on their way to telescopes on the ground.

With no atmosphere and shielding from the Earth, the far side of the Moon presents a nearly ideal environment for a sensitive Dark Ages telescope. In NRL's LRA concept, scientists and engineers will investigate novel antenna constructions, methods to deploy the antennas, electronics that can survive in the harsh lunar environment, and related technology in preparation for developing a roadmap for research and development of a lunar telescope over the next decade. The team will also build on their experience in developing the Radio Observatory for Lunar Sortie Science (ROLSS), a NASA-funded study of a pathfinding array that would be located on the near side of the Moon. The project leader at NRL, Dr. Joseph Lazio, pointed out that LRA will be one of the most powerful telescopes ever built and will bring us closer than we have ever been to understanding where our Universe came from and where it is going.

The NLSI's goal is to address key questions about lunar science in preparation for the resumption of human visits to the moon about a decade from now. The institute supports scientific research to supplement and extend existing NASA lunar science programs in coordination with U.S. space exploration policy. The selection of the members encompasses academic institutions, non-profit research institutes, private companies, NASA centers and other government laboratories. Selections were based on a competitive evaluation process that began with the release of a cooperative agreement notice in June 2008. The next solicitation opportunity for new members will take place in approximately two years.

The selected initial NLSI member teams are: Teams were selected from 33 proposals. Based and managed at Ames, the NLSI is a virtual institute, enabling the newly selected members to remain at their home institutions. Partnerships and collaborations among members are highly encouraged and facilitated through a variety of proven networking tools, such as frequent videoconferences.

The NLSI opened in April 2008 and the facility is modeled after the NASA Astrobiology Institute, also based at Ames. That institute is a virtual facility that has successfully sustained a productive research program for more than a decade. The newly selected Lunar Institute teams, along with the international associate and affiliate teams, have members working together throughout the world. The institutes are supported by the Science Mission Directorate and Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
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Naval Research Laboratory

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