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NASA is Considering a Radio Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon – Universe Today

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The University of Colorado Boulder and Lunar Resources Inc. have just won NASA funding to study the possibility of building a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. The project, called FarView, would harvest building materials from the Lunar surface itself, and use robotic rovers to construct a massive, intricate network of wires and antennas across 400 square kilometers. When complete, FarView would allow radio astronomers to observe the sky in low-frequency radio wavelengths with unprecedented clarity.

Radio telescopes work best in isolation. On Earth, if radio telescope operators want to ‘hear’ the sky without interference, they need to establish enormous exclusion zones around the telescope where cellphones, wi-fi, and even the spark-plugs from gasoline cars are banned. FarView proposes to put a telescope in the quietest place we can think of, away from Earthlings and our noisy gadgets. With this Lunar observatory, astronomers would be able to listen to the Universe more clearly than ever before, allowing them to go deeper back in time and space, perhaps even to the cosmic dark ages when the first stars were forming.

The Green Bank Radio Telescope, West Virginia, requires a large ‘Quiet Zone’ surrounding it to avoid interference. Credit: Geremia, Wikipedia Commons.

It just might work, although the plan is still in the earliest stages. FarView is funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which works with entrepreneurs to fund ideas that are innovative and technically sound, but largely untried and still in their infancy. NIAC projects are a glimpse at the possibilities of space exploration a decade or more in the future. It will be a long road yet to create the proposed Moon-based observatory.

Dr. Alex Ignatiev, Chief Technology Officer of Lunar Resources, is confident they can pull it off, and do so without breaking the bank. “We could build FarView at about 10% of the James Webb Telescope cost and operate for more than 50 years,” he said. It is an impressive goal.

Building with Lunar Soil

The key to keeping costs down is to build FarView using materials already available on the Moon, otherwise known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). ISRU has become a buzzword in recent years with regard to Lunar and Martian exploration, as it is will be necessary to sustain long-duration human activity on the Moon and Mars. In this instance, ISRU will allow FarView to reduce the expensive costs of escaping Earth’s pesky gravity well by building the telescope out of Lunar regolith.

The exact manufacturing process for FarView relies on two techniques. The first is molten regolith electrolysis (melting Lunar soil to separate the metals from the oxygen), and the second is vacuum deposition (laying down thin foil-like films of material). Lunar Resources has experience in both techniques on a small scale; they will need to be ramped up to create the enormous FarView observatory.

During a Future In-Space Operations (FISO) telecon presentation last December, Ignatiev explained that the regolith across the Moon is a mix of metallic oxides, with more iron in the Mares and more aluminum in the Highlands, and elements like silicon and magnesium available throughout. “Our challenge then in terms of doing manufacturing on the moon with raw materials,” he said, “is to break that regolith-oxygen bond…and obtain the raw elements from that regolith” using electric currents.

Artist’s depiction of a rover laying down antennas on the far side of the Moon. Credit: Lunar Resources.

A small robotic processing factory would extract these metals from the soil, and deposit them into a rover. FarView’s Principal Investigator, Ronald Polidan, told FISO that as the rover drives along, it “melts the regolith surface into a glass, then lays the metal antennas on that, with connecting wires and all the other necessary infrastructure.” Using this method, it would take 26 months to fabricate the 100,000 ten-meter-long dipoles required for the telescope. The rover would only be able to work during the Lunar days (about two Earth weeks long) and have to hibernate during the nights.

Challenges and Opportunities

Building a Lunar telescope sounds complicated, but its principles are fairly straightforward once the materials are extracted. Laying strips of metal foil across the surface of the Moon shouldn’t be too hard, and no large-scale load-bearing construction is necessary for it to work. The best part is that, in theory, the metal dipoles are serviceable and repairable, giving FarView a lengthy lifespan.

To begin operations, however, some other infrastructure will probably be required first. The team plans to build solar panels and batteries from regolith as well, providing power sources for the telescope. They hope ISRU techniques like these will be tested and proven in conjunction with the Artemis program in the coming years.

Finally, for FarView to succeed, some consideration will have to be given to communications. When China landed their Chang’e 4 lander on the far side of the Moon in 2019, they first had to put a communications satellite (Queqiao) at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point, to allow the lander to talk to Earth. NASA has no such satellite available yet – and cooperation with China in space has been politically difficult in recent years. A Lunar far side observatory is going to require some innovation: either in engineering, or in diplomacy.

Are Lunar Observatories the Future of Astronomy?

With new mega-constellations like Starlink coming online in the next few decades, Earth-based astronomy is becoming more and more challenging. These low-flying satellite swarms create bright streaks of light which pollute telescope imagery. Lunar observatories might seem like a promising alternative to sidestep this problem. But the fact is that for most types of telescopes, you just can’t beat the cost and convenience of building them on Earth, even if Starlink gets in their way occasionally. As such, it seems likely that Lunar observatories like FarView will only supplement Earth-based observatories, not replace them, at least not anytime soon. Not even with ISRU.

Streaks across Earth-based telescope imagery, caused by an early batch of Starlink satellites in November 2019. Image Credit: NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/CTIO/AURA/DELVE/Clara Martínez-Vázquez and Cliff Johnson.

FarView is exciting not because it solves the Starlink problem (which mostly affects optical telescopes anyways), but rather because FarView offers a unique opportunity for low-frequency radio astronomy, something not viable on Earth due to all of the radio noise we create. With FarView, we could learn things about the cosmic dark ages that just aren’t possible with Earth-based infrastructure. Its scientific value is huge. Just don’t count on it to act as a substitute for mega-constellation regulations, or streak-reducing brightness mitigation techniques. We’re still going to need those to ensure Earth-based astronomy can coexist with mega-constellations, because neither of them are going anywhere any time soon.

New ground-based telescopes like the Vera Rubin Observatory and the Extremely Large Telescope are going to do amazing things in the next decade. If and when FarView joins them, it might just ring in a new golden age of astronomy, with Earth, space, and Moon telescopes alike working together to understand our place in the Universe. It’s a goal worth pursuing, and with a little cooperation and ingenuity, it just might come sooner than we think.

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World strives to limit damage as greenhouse gas levels hit record

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Greenhouse gas concentrations hit a record last year and the world is “way off track” on capping rising temperatures, the United Nations said on Monday, showing the task facing climate talks in Glasgow aimed at averting dangerous levels of warming.

A report by the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO) showed carbon dioxide levels surged to 413.2 parts per million in 2020, rising more than the average rate over the last decade despite a temporary dip in emissions during COVID-19 lockdowns.

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said the current rate of increase in heat-trapping gases would result in temperature rises “far in excess” of the 2015 Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average this century.

“We are way off track,” he said. “We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life,” he added, calling for a “dramatic increase” in commitments at the COP26 conference beginning on Sunday.

The Scottish city of Glasgow was putting on the final touches before hosting the climate talks, which may be the world’s last best chance to cap global warming at the 1.5-2 degrees Celsius upper limit set out in the Paris Agreement.

“It is going to be very, very tough this summit,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during a news conference with children.

“I am very worried because it might go wrong and we might not get the agreements that we need and it is touch and go, it is very, very difficult, but I think it can be done,” he said.

The German government announced Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Glasgow to take part.

STAKES ARE HUGE

The stakes for the planet are huge – among them the impact on economic livelihoods the world over and the future stability of the global financial system.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said on Saturday that the world’s top oil exporter aims to reach “net zero” emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly produced by burning fossil fuels, by 2060 – 10 years later than the United States. He also said it would double the emissions cuts it plans to achieve by 2030.

An official plan unveiled in Ottawa showed developed nations were confident they can reach their goal of handing over $100 billion a year to poorer countries to tackle climate change by 2023, three years late.

The plan on how to reach the goal, prepared by Canada and Germany, said developed countries still needed to do more and complained private finance had not lived up to expectations.

A Reuters poll of economists found that hitting the Paris goal of net-zero carbon emissions will require investments in a green transition worth 2%-3% of world output each year until 2050, far less than the economic cost of inaction.

By contrast governments since January 2020 have spent a total of $10.8 trillion – or 10.2% of global output – in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘WE DON’T HAVE TIME’

A “business-as-usual” trajectory leading to temperature rises of 1.6C, 2.4C and 4.4C by 2030, 2050 and 2100 respectively would result in 2.4% lost output by 2030, 10% by 2050 and 18% by 2100, according to the median replies to the survey.

Australia’s cabinet was expected to formally adopt a target for net zero emissions by 2050 when it meets on Monday to review a deal reached between parties in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition government, official sources told Reuters.

The ruling coalition has been divided over how to tackle climate change, with the government maintaining that harder targets would damage the A$2-trillion ($1.5-trillion) economy.

In London, climate activists restarted their campaign of blockading major roads by disrupting traffic in the city’s financial district, while in Madrid a few dozen people staged a sit-in protest, briefly blocking the Gran Via shopping street.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are provoking climate catastrophes all over the planet. We don’t have time. It’s already late and if we don’t join the action against what’s happening, we won’t have time to save what is still left,” said Alberto, 27, a sociologist who took part in the protest.

 

(Additional reporting by William James and Kylie MacLellan in London, Zuzanna Szymanska in Berlin, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Marco Trujillo in Madrid; Writing by Michael Shields, Editing by William Maclean)

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New nuclear reactors can help France become carbon neutral by 2050 -RTE

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French grid operator RTE said next generation nuclear reactors offer an affordable path to shifting the country’s energy mix away from fossil fuels and make the aim of carbon neutrality by 2050 achievable.

“Building new nuclear reactors is economically viable, especially as it makes it possible to maintain a fleet of around 40 gigawatts (GW) in 2050,” said the RTE in a report examining the different pathways to meet the expected rise in electricity demand.

Industry and government sources say the report is expected to help inform President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to go ahead with plans to build new nuclear plants.

Le Figaro reported last week that Macron wants to announce the construction of six new EPR nuclear reactors by the end of the year.

Achieving future carbon neutral goals without nuclear reactors would require a scale up of renewables faster than the most dynamic electric mixes in Europe, RTE said.

France and several other European countries have pushed to label nuclear energy as green investments in the European Union’s upcoming sustainable finance rules.

The carbon neutral goals will be “impossible” without a significant development of renewable energy, RTE said.

Other supply options include the development of further interconnectors between countries, expanding hydraulic storage, and installing batteries to store renewable power.

New thermal power plants that utilise carbon-free gases, such as “green hydrogen” which is produced through the use of renewable energy, can also be used in order to meet rising consumption forecasts, the operator said.

RTE said the current energy crisis shows Europe’s dependence on hydro-carbons, such as gas and coal, has an economic cost and that low-carbon production in the country is an issue of energy independence.

France’s nuclear safety watchdog ASN in February cleared more than half of the nuclear fleet to operate for a decade longer than originally planned after maintenance work, as 32-900 megawatt reactors are coming to the end of their lifespan.

France currently has about 62.4 GW of nuclear generation capacity provided by 57 reactors, RTE data showed.

REACTION

Environmental groups decried the report’s emphasis on nuclear energy and supported calls for a quicker build out of renewable generation.

Greenpeace focused on the three pathways which would see the grid operated on 100% renewable energy and called for debates on the energy transition.

“This not only proves that nuclear power is not a necessary evil, but also that, whatever option is chosen, renewable energies need massive development to respond to the climate emergency,” Greenpeace said.

The RTE report said that scenarios with high shares of renewables, or those that extend reactor life beyond 60 years, would “involve heavy bets on technology” to meet carbon neutrality goals.

French Green party members described the report as one-sided and an attempt to justify new nuclear projects while disregarding consumption control measures.

“The goal of the president of the Republic and his government is clear: to justify the revival of nuclear power at any cost,” said Matthieu Orphelin, who used to represent Macron’s party but who has joined the Greens.

The French renewable energy union SER said the scenarios presented in the report represented “a major paradigm shift,” as it is expected that renewables will need to cover at least 50% of demand by 2050.

(Reporting by Forrest Crellin and Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Mike Harrison)

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Explainer: Climate change: what are the economic stakes?

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COP26 climate talks in Glasgow starting next Sunday may be the world’s best last chance to cap global warming at the 1.5-2 degrees Celsius upper limit set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The stakes for the planet are huge – among them the impact on economic livelihoods the world over and the future stability of the global financial system.

Here are 10 climate change-related questions that economic policy-makers are trying to answer:

1) HOW MUCH DOES CLIMATE CHANGE COST? From floods and fires to conflict and migration: economic models struggle with the many possible knock-on effects from global warming. The ballpark IMF estimate is that unchecked warming would shave 7% off world output by 2100. The Network for Greening the Financial System (NFGS) group of world central banks puts it even higher – 13%. In a Reuters poll of economists, the median figure for the output loss in that scenario was 18%.

2) WHERE IS THE IMPACT GOING TO BE FELT HARDEST? – Clearly, the developing world. Much of the world’s poor live in the tropical or low-lying regions already suffering climate change fall-out like droughts or rising sea levels. Moreover their countries rarely have the resources to mitigate such damage. The NFGS report projects overall output losses of above 15% for much of Asia and Africa, rising to 20% in the Sahel countries.

3) WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR INDIVIDUAL LIVELIHOODS? Climate change will drive up to 132 million more people into extreme poverty by 2030, a World Bank paper last year concluded. Factors included lost farming income; lower outdoor labour productivity; rising food prices; increased disease; and economic losses from extreme weather.

4) HOW MUCH WILL IT COST TO FIX IT? Advocates of early action say the sooner you start the better. The widely used NiGEM macroeconomic forecast model even suggests an early start would offer small net gains for output thanks to the big investments needed in green infrastructure. The same model warns of output losses of up to 3% in last-minute transition scenarios.

5) WHO LOSES OUT IN A “NET ZERO” CARBON WORLD? Primarily, anyone with fossil fuel exposure. A report by think tank Carbon Tracker in September estimated that over $1 trillion of business-as-usual investment by the oil and gas sector would no longer be viable in a genuinely low-carbon world. Moreover the IMF has called for the end of all fossil fuel subsidies – which it calculates at $5 trillion annually if defined to include undercharging for supply, environmental and health costs.

6) WHAT SHOULD CARBON REALLY COST? Tax or permit schemes that try to price in the damage done by emissions create incentives to go green. But so far only a fifth of global carbon emissions are covered by such programmes, pricing carbon on average at a mere $3 a tonne. That’s well below the $75/tonne the IMF says is needed to cap global warming at well below 2°C. The Reuters poll of economists recommended $100/tonne.

7) WOULDN’T THAT LEAD TO INFLATION? – Anything which factors in the polluting cost of fossil fuels is likely to lead to price rises in some sectors – aviation for example. That could in turn lead to what central banks define as inflation – broad-based and durable price rises across the whole economy. Yet history shows this hasn’t necessarily been the case: carbon taxes introduced in Canada and Europe pushed overall prices lower because they cut into household income and hence consumer demand, a recent study showed. It is also true that doing nothing could lead to inflation: a European Central Bank paper last year warned of food and commodity price rises from extreme weather events and the land shortages being caused by desertification and rising sea levels.

8) ARE GREEN ADVANCES REALLY DECOUPLING EMISSIONS FROM ECONOMIC GROWTH? Genuinely sustainable growth implies that economic activity can grow as needed without adding yet more emissions. This is the holy grail of “absolute decoupling”. But so far, any decoupling has either been largely relative – in the sense of merely achieving higher rates of economic growth than gains in emissions – or achieved by shifting dirty production from one national territory to another. And that is why, for now, global emissions are still rising.

9) WHO BEARS THE BRUNT OF TRANSITION? The idea of “Just Transition” has been espoused by bodies such as the European Union to acknowledge that the transition to net zero should happen in a fair way – for example by ensuring low-income groups are not made worse-off. At a global scale, the rich countries which since their industrial revolutions have generated the bulk of emissions have promised to help developing countries transition via $100 billion of annual transfers – a promise so far not fulfilled.

10) COULD THIS SPARK A FINANCIAL CRISIS? The global financial system needs to be insulated against both the physical risks of climate change itself and the upheavals likely to happen during a transition to net zero. Central banks and national treasuries are calling on banks and other financial players to come clean about the exposure of their books to such risks. The ECB and other regulators have made it clear there is a long way to go on this.

 

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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