Dec. 19, 2011 at 8:38 PM ET
After a wild night on top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano, researchers report that they've successfully tested the remote-control system for a prototype telescope that could someday be looking at the cosmos from the surface of the moon.
The demonstration for the International Lunar Observatory precursor instrument, or ILO-X, came a day earlier than originally plannned, due to a wave of chilly, stormy weather that was sweeping over Hawaii. Temperatures on Mauna Kea reportedly dipped to 16 below zero Fahrenheit overnight.
"It was certainly challenging," Steve Durst, founder and director of the International Lunar Observatory Association, told me today. "We succeeded after some time in imaging celestial objects — not as many as we wanted, because of the extreme conditions."
ILO science team members were able to control the shoebox-sized, camera-equipped telescope from stations in Switzerland, California and China, with signals routed via the Internet through a mission control center at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea. Other researchers from India, Japan, Canada and Africa had been planning to participate, but they couldn't scramble quickly enough to tap into the system, Durst said.
Durst said the telescope was aimed at celestial targets including the planet Jupiter and the Pleiades star cluster, using remote-control software developed by Moon Express. The imagery was returned for processing, just as it would be during a moon mission. "That was very rewarding to see happen," said Bob Richards, the co-founder and CEO of Moon Express.
The flight version of ILO-X is destined to travel to the lunar surface aboard the Moon Express lander, which Richards and his colleagues intend to launch in 2014 to win a share of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Moon Express has designed and is building the ILO-X instrument with financial support from Durst's organization.
Changing minds about the moon
ILO-X's backers say it would be the first visible-light telescope permanently placed on the moon to make celestial observations. Richards said the instrument "will do what an extremely good amateur telescope could do," but he and Durst stressed that the success of the mission wouldn't be judged by the quality of the imagery alone.
"It's no Hubble," Richards said. "We're not trying to change the astronomy textbooks. We're trying to change people's minds about their place on the moon."
Durst sees ILO-X as merely the precursor for bigger, more capable telescopes that could eventually be sent to the moon. For example, radio telescopes placed on the far side of the moon would be shielded from earthly interference — and even on the moon's Earth-facing side, telescopes could have a much clearer view of the cosmos than telescopes on Earth.
"There's no atmosphere to distort the images," Durst explained.
Making money on the moon?
Durst is also experimenting with the idea of using the moon as a broadcasting platform, starting with ILO-X and continuing with a follow-on lunar mission known as ILO-1. "It's a catalyst for a money-making broadcast operation that we want to conduct," he told me.
Richards said flying ILO-X on the Moon Express would help "buy down the risk" for future lunar telescopes. But that's not Moon Express' only aim. The venture, co-founded by dot-com millionaire Naveen Jain, is targeting the X Prize purse as well as other lunar business opportunities. "No one has ever captured people’s fascination with the moon," Jain has been quoted as saying. "What if, say, we take a picture of your family on the moon and project it back to you? Or take DNA up there?"
Moon Express is one of several Google Lunar X Prize entrants that have made multimillion-dollar deals with NASA for access to their lunar mission development data. But the highest-profile payoff is the X Prize itself. To win the prize, the venture will have to put its lander on the moon, then send out a mini-rover to gather data and images and send it back to Earth.
With the ILO-X demonstration completed, Richards said attention will turn to preparing the ruggedized version of the telescope and other components of the lunar probe for the big flight ahead. The clock is ticking, not only for Moon Express but for more than two dozen other X Prize teams. If no one pulls off a successful lunar mission by the end of 2015, the prize expires, and the purse goes back to the sponsors at Google.
Update for 10:40 a.m. ET Dec. 20: I originally wrote that ILO-X would be the first telescope on the moon, but it's been pointed out that the Apollo 16 mission carried an instrument known as the Far Ultraviolet Camera / Spectrograph, which used a 3-inch telescope to make astronomical observations in ultraviolet wavelengths in 1972. Goes to show that there's nothing new under the sun, especially if you go beyond the visible-light spectrum. This MIT webpage tells you more about George Carruthers, who led the team that invented the Far Ultraviolet Camera / Spectrograph.
More about the Google Lunar X Prize:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.