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"Hello, this is Antarctica calling"

by Bruno Van de Casteele

January 27, 2013

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Donate Most of you are probably aware of the Arecibo observatory, world's largest single-dish radio telescope. Constructed in a natural valley in Puerto Rico, it is still one of the work horses in radio astronomy.
But a proposal from 1960, which I found via the bldgblog of Geoff Manaugh, wanted to go much further.

Millet G. Morgan proposed in IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation to cover an entire island and use it as a reflecting dish. He was inspired by whistlers (low-frequency electromagnetic phenomena) created during lightning. Morgan proposed to recreate these, and use the principle to reflect radio communication. He "just" needed an island that, given its shape and properties and when covered with the correct material, would reflect those communications. He came upon Deception Island, in the Antarctic.

Uninhabited but for two scientific stations, this volcanic island looks suspiciously ready to build a reflecting antenna, ready to reflect radio signals (mainly voice communication at the time). Even the name of a bay, Telefon Bay, seemed to point to a certain destiny. This bay however was named after a ship, the Telefon.

Nothing came of this idea, and no reflecting material was ever placed on the island. Most probably it was just one of those wild ideas meant to cover the increasing demand for phone communication traffic, but no longer needed because of the advent of geosynchronous satellites.

But it was part of the engineering creativity at work in those days. One of the other ideas was to reflect radio signals on aluminium blimps. It was called Project Echo, an idea by Bell Labs and NASA. Although short-lived, the decommissioning of its infrastructure built gave Penzias and Wilson the chance to use the Holmdel Horn Antenna. This in turn led to the accidental but very important discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965, and a Nobel Prize in 1978. Imagine they, or any scientist, having access to a 72 km² large antenna in Antarctica!

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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