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Radio: Negative Experiment

3 minute read

Nobody knows whether or not there is animal life on the planet Mars; nobody knows whether or not it is possible to reach Mars with a radio signal. In 1924 a group of radio engineers trying to tune in Mars heard signals which they claimed they could not identify with an Earthly source. Last week, with Mars closer to the Earth than at any time since 1924, another group of radio engineers tried a more daring experiment: sending a signal Marsward in the hope that it would be reflected back, picked up again on Earth. They thought they might succeed if: 1) the signal could penetrate the ionosphere, the ionized layer in the Earth’s atmosphere whose influence on radio waves is not thoroughly understood; 2) it was not dissipated or destroyed on the way; 3) it hit Mars; 4) it was reflected toward Earth, and strong enough to be detected.

At the headquarters of Press Wireless, surrounded by the barren salt marshes off Baldwin, Long Island, gathered engineers of Newark’s publicity-wise Station WOR, good-natured Curator Clyde Fisher of Manhattan’s Hayden Planetarium, newshawks, photographers, announcers standing by to tell all. Before sending their signal, the engineers spent forty-five minutes twirling the knobs of 40 short-wave receivers, trying to catch a signal from Mars, where the highest form of life is generally believed to be some low form of vegetation, possibly resembling moss. Result: a potpourri of short-wave noises, most of them promptly identified.

Still hopeful, the engineers proceeded to the main experiment: a signal sent by remote control from a 100,000-watt transmitter 10 miles away at Hicksville, L. I., the antenna of which pointed toward Mars at an angle of 30°. By common consent, the “message” was a meaningless succession of dots and dashes. Astronomer Fisher and associates figured that if the signal traveled 36,030,000 miles and back at 186,000 mi. a second, the round trip would take 6 min. 28 sec. The key was tapped. For 6 min. 28 sec. everyone waited. Nothing happened. After a brief pause, WOR switched Baldwin off its hookup, Ben Bernie on. A few diehards argued that they had heard something, but officially the result of the experiment was “negative.” WOR’s Chief Engineer J. R. Poppele, who was in on the 1924 experiment, cheerfully announced that he would try again during Mars’s next “favorable opposition” to Earth (in 1941).

To the already long list of odds against the experiment, Astronomer Earl C. Slipher of Lowell Observatory had added another: his belief that it had been snowing on Mars last week.

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