Three five metre-long antennae on the Dutch-Chinese radio telescope have begun scanning the cosmos. The Netherlands-China Low Frequency Explorer (NCLE) will analyse faint radio signals as researchers from the two nations attempt to discover the secrets of the cosmos. One objective will be to analyse the cosmic ‘dark ages’, and determine what happened between the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago and the formation of the first stars.
Following the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, it took 377,000 years for the universe to cool down enough to a point where atoms could form. Some of the atoms were hydrogen and helium, which are the main ingredients for stars.
But it took almost 500 millions years for galaxies to form and in that time, there is little understanding of what went on between nothingness and the formation of galaxies – a period known as the Dark Ages.
The NCLE will try to uncover hints as to what occurred during the dark ages and it could point to how the universe came to be.
The main benefit of having the telescope orbiting the far side of the moon is that it will be able to detect extremely faint signals which would otherwise be blocked out by radio interference here on Earth.
With its current capabilities, the NCLE is able to detect signals from 13 billion years ago – 800 million years after the Big Bang.
The telescope will look for signals in the 8.25 inch (21cm) emission range, which corresponds with radio signals during the dark ages.
However, the researchers have said that when the antennae have reached their full capabilities, they will be able to peer back to the Big Bang, unravelling perhaps the biggest mystery of the universe.
The telescope was taken to the moon on China’s Chang’e-4, which was arrived at the moon in January, helping China to become the first nation to reach the far side of the moon.
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Professor Heino Falcke, the chair of astrophysics and radio astronomy at Radboud University and scientific leader of the project, added: “We are finally in business and have a radio-astronomy instrument of Dutch origin in space.
“The team has worked incredibly hard, and the first data will reveal how well the instrument truly performs.”