An artist’s rendering of the proposed telescope on the Malapert crater on the moon. Moon Express/ILOA Enlarge

Two private companies are teaming up to attempt the first-ever mission to the moon’s south pole in order to place a telescope atop a lunar mountain.

This plan is being spearheaded by the International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA), a non-profit aiming to build a scientific and commercial base on the moon, with help from the startup Moon Express, which hopes to become a Space Age version of FedEx in the coming decade.

The companies want to put a 2-meter radio antenna along with a smaller optical telescope on a lunar peak, most likely the 5-km-high rim of a crater called Malapert. From this position, both telescopes could view the center of our Milky Way galaxy with unprecedented clarity because they wouldn’t be subjected to our atmosphere’s hazy interference. The moon would also block them from radio and other electromagnetic noise created by modern civilization. Astronomers have long proposed putting similar telescopes on the moon’s far side – which faces permanently away from our planet – because the pictures could exceed anything produced by the best terrestrial or even space-based instruments.

But far-side telescopes would need to be controlled with costly satellite relays. Located at the lunar south pole, Malapert crater provides the advantage of “a direct line of access to Earth,” said entrepreneur Steve Durst, founder and director of ILOA.

Furthermore, a “day” on the moon is a month-long affair; with two weeks of searing day temperatures rising above 120 degrees Celsius followed by two weeks of night temperatures the plunge below -170 degrees Celsius. Engineering an observatory for such swings would be a challenge. Because of its location at the pole, Malapert gets showered with sunlight for 90 percent of the lunar rotation period and enjoys a relatively stable and balmy temperature averaging around -50 degrees Celsius. The sunny spot would be perfect for solar panels collecting energy, said Durst, averting the need for a nuclear power source.

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