December 12 – Catch The Wave

Today’s factismal: You can see meteor tracks using radio waves.

If you are a radio history buff, today is a triple jackpot. It starts at the dawn of radio, back in 1896, when Marconi showed a rapt audience in East London how pressing a key could transmit a signal without wires. While his assistant carried a small battery-powered box around the room, showing that it was not connected by wires to anything, Marconi repeatedly pressed a telegraph key to trigger a spark-gap transmitter similar to the one that Tesla had invented just a few years earlier. That would create a signal that would then cause a bell to ring in the box. Wireless telegraphy (as it was called) had arrived.

Marconi would continue to work on wireless telegraphy even as Tesla abandoned it to work on inventing the rest of the modern world. And in just five years, Marconi had built a radio powerful enough to send a signal from Cornwall to New Foundland; on December 12, 1901, he became the first person to send a transatlantic radio message. Of course, given the primitive nature of the equipment, it wasn’t much of a signal – just the Morse code signal for “S” (dot-dot-dot) repeated over and over. Nevertheless, it spurred enough interest in his company that Marconi soon became rich and wireless telegraphy became commonplace.

Sixty years later, radio would make the news one more time as NASA launched the first privately constructed satellite in the world. On December 12, 1961, the OSCAR-1 (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) hitch-hiked into orbit as a passenger on a military satellite launch. OSCAR-1 was designed and built by students at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, with the help of the TRW Radio Club. The satellite worked flawlessly even though it had been built less than four years after Sputnik and was the world’s first piggy-pack satellite launch as well as the world’s first privately built satellite. For 22 days, OSCAR-1 circled the globe, streaming out a constant “HI HI” to everyone who tuned in.

The OSCAR-1 satellite (Image courtesy Smithsonian)

The OSCAR-1 satellite
(Image courtesy Smithsonian)

Today the OSCAR program continues to excite and inspire. And citizen scientists like Marconi and the students who built OSCAR-1 continue to help make new discoveries in science. For example, did you know that meteors sometimes reflect radio waves when they fall? Thanks to the pressure of their fall, they create a wake of ionized plasma; by bouncing radio waves off of the ionized air, we can learn how many meteorites fall and how they move. To get involved in tracking meteors, scream over to:

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