Lunar astronomy: A dual-camera system is headed to the Moon later this year

Correction (Friday, April 8, 2022 at 8pm ET): The original version of this article stated the ILO-X mission was meant to send the dual imaging system to the Moon’s South Pole. That is incorrect, as it is the follow-up mission, ILO-1, whose launch date is currently not set, which will see a dual camera system land at the Moon’s South Pole. All of this information has been corrected in the article.

Astronomy from the lunar surface is just around the corner. In June, the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA) in Hawai’i intends to launch a dual-camera system attached to a lunar lander later this year.

For the flagship mission, ILO-X, the dual imager will be launched to and perform deep space photography and observations from Valois Schroteri, a valley on the near side of the moon. A second mission, ILO-1, whose launch date is yet to be determined, will launch another dual-imager to the Moon’s South Pole.

Why the moon? ILOA outlines numerous advantages of doing astronomy from the moon, including a much more hospitable environment. The moon’s ‘near lack of atmosphere’ eliminates the need for many special optical adaptations. Further, weather conditions on Earth can cause issues for observations, plus the location and brightness of the moon in the sky itself can be problematic for Earth-based astronomy. ILOA writes, ‘On Earth, daytime means no observations, but the moon’s days (about fourteen Earth days) have a dark sky that allows for nonstop astronomy, which only requires use of a rotating baffle or sunshade. The moon’s environment offers a platform proven to be more stable than the Earth’s. This enables the use of simple, low-cost telescope bases. Long exposure times, a characteristic shared by observations from both the Earth and the moon, could allow for an effective Earth-Moon interferometer.’

Some of the same advantages of lunar-based astronomy are realized by space telescopes, but these are extremely expensive and complex. Further, their useful lifetimes are limited by the need for onboard fuel to control altitude. Lunar telescopes won’t require additional fuel once they’re in position on the moon. The moon also lacks ‘light pollution.’

While the lunar environment is more stable than Earth’s, making the moon conducive to simpler, lower-cost telescopes, lunar observation has some potential downsides. ILOA writes, ‘The lunar environment does, however, present several complications for astronomical facilities. Micrometeorites strike randomly though infrequently. Cosmic and solar radiation can slowly damage vital observatory instruments. Temperature shifts as large as 350 degrees Celsius and radiation could be hazardous to future human servicing missions. Also, lunar dust could pose problems for service missions as well as interfere with telescope operation.’ Nonetheless, the ILO team believes the moon holds the potential for the best astronomy.

The ILOA’s ILO-X observatory includes a pair of cameras, a wide field camera and a narrow field camera. The camera system will launch aboard an Intuitive Machines IM-1 lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. If all goes according to plan, the narrow field camera will capture the first image of the Milky Way Galaxy from the moon. ILOA is asking students in Hawai’i to help name the narrow field camera. The naming contest remains open until May 26.

‘The Milky Way Galaxy first view from the moon with ILO-X could provide a new 21st Century perspective for the human future, like the Earth-Rise first view from the moon did for Global understandings last century’ says ILOA Director Steve Durst. Larger ILO-1 and ILO-2 observation missions are in development, too. For more information, visit the ILOA website.