Not long ago talk about a changing speed of light was verboten. "Dark energy" was to be the new paradigm for physics. The flagship of astrophysics was to be a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) for which the leading concept was Supernova Acceleration Probe. SNAP was to be a 2-meter infrared telescope at the Earth-Sun L2 point, whose mission was to discover more "dark energy." DE was going to create new missions, careers, prizes and loot for big science.
Steinn Siggurdson has been chronicling the slow sinking of NASA's astrophysics program. One trouble is that NASA already is sending an infrared instrument to L2. The huge cost of James Webb Space Telescope is increasing every day, leaving little room for another similiar mission. With no NASA center supporting it, things are looking bad for "dark energy."
Astronomers should not despair of the Vision. As with many problems, the solution is staring us in the face every night. The Moon is a providential location for observatories. For radio astronomy, the lunar farside is shielded from Earth's radio racket. For interferometers and gravity wave experiments, putting instruments on the Moon avoids the problems of formation flying. For deep surveys, placing a telescope on the lunar South Pole allows one sector of sky to be watched for indefinite periods of time. All this can be done for surprisingly little cost.
In California's Silicon Valley, campuses with names like Google and Cisco line the roads like theatre marquees. Friday representatives of some of these companies attended a meeting of the International Lunar Observatory Association. ILO would be a 2-meter multi-wavelength telescope on the lunar South Pole. With the same mirror diameter as SNAP, it could search for supernovae and many other phenomena. Surveys in many areas of the spectrum would create a database that astronomers could mine for years. ILO would be launched on a Russian Dniepr booster, using technology demonstrated by the Cubesat program.
ILO could be built within 2 years of getting funding. Cost would be barely a tenth of SNAP, about 35-50 million US. This project is inexpensive enough to be financed by wealthy individuals. The William Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea was funded this way. Bill Gates Telescope, anyone? Sergei Brin Telescope? Observations from ILO would be available to the world via the web.
An International Lunar Observatory is an inexpensive project that would benefit all humanity. See the figure in the clunky old-fashioned spacesuit? Like Hubble, a telescope on the Moon will need to be serviced by humans. Tomorrow we'll see how that may be done.