The past two decades have witnessed a renewed interest in low frequency radio astronomy, with a particular focus on frequencies above 30 MHz e.g., LOFAR (LOw Frequency ARray) in the Netherlands and its European extension ILT, the International LOFAR Telescope. However, at frequencies below 30 MHz, Earth-based observations are limited due to a combination of severe ionospheric distortions, almost full reflection of radio waves below 10 MHz, solar eruptions and the radio frequency interference (RFI) of human-made signals. Moreover, there are interesting scientific processes which naturally occur at these low frequencies. A space or Lunar-based ultra-low-frequency (also referred to as ultra-long-wavelength, ULW) radio array would suffer significantly less from these limitations and hence would open up the last, virtually unexplored frequency domain in the electromagnetic spectrum. A roadmap has been initiated by astronomers and researchers in the Netherlands to explore the opportunity of building a swarm of satellites to observe at the frequency band below 30 MHz. This roadmap dubbed Orbiting Low Frequency Antennas for Radio Astronomy (OLFAR), a space-based ultra-low frequency radio telescope that will explore the Universe's so-called dark ages, map the interstellar medium, and study planetary and solar bursts in the solar system and search them in other planetary systems. Such a radio astronomy system will comprise of a swarm of hundreds to thousands of satellites, working together as a single aperture synthesis instrument deployed sufficiently far away from Earth to avoid terrestrial RFI. The OLFAR telescope is a novel and complex system, requiring yet to be proven engineering solutions. Therefore, a number of key technologies are still required to be developed and proven. The first step in this roadmap is the NCLE (Netherlands China Low Frequency Explorer) experiment, which was launched in May 2018 on the Chinese Chang'e 4 mission. The NCLE payload consists of a three monopole antenna system for low frequency observations, from which the first data stream is expected in the second half of 2019, which will provide important feedback for future science and technology opportunities. In this paper, the roadmap towards OLFAR, a brief overview of the science opportunities, and the technological and programmatic challenges of the mission are presented.
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- Satellite swarms
- Ultra-long wavelength astronomy
- Ultra-low frequency radio astronomy