by Lisa T.E. Sonne
June 3rd, 2009
One Giant Bounce for Mankind
Almost 40 years after the historic Apollo 11 mission, we’ll hear voices from the moon again. This time, celebrities, ham radio enthusiasts — and perhaps even you — will join the astronauts’ voices.
A massive project to bounce voices from Earth to the moon and back to another spot on Earth will be launched June 26. Several former astronauts and other famous people have signed on, and so can one lucky Wired Science reader.
We’ve secured a spot for one Tweet to be bounced off the moon, so send your most space-worthy 140 characters to @wiredscience or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The winner can go to a moon bounce station to personally send the message to the moon.
The Echoes of Apollo project exists thanks to amateur radio operators. Parabolic antennas, or dishes, around the world will lend their strength to the global moon bounce.
“We are actually sending out radio waves and shaking the electrons of the atoms of the dirt on the moon a quarter of a million miles away,” said Pat Barthelow, a ham radio operator for 43 years and the founder of the moon-bounce project. “We are jiggling moon dust and there’s enough energy to send back radio waves to us which we convert back to voices. To me that’s pretty profound.”
The World Moon Bounce Day could set the record for the greatest number of dishes facing the moon at once, even outnumbering the global focus during the first moon walk. So far, people at dishes in Australia, Europe and the United States have committed to stop their regular space work to track the moon so human voices can echo back 2.5 seconds after being sent.
“We needed to set up inter-visibility between us and Australia, a time when we could both see the moon, so it will be June 26th here and the 27th there,” Barthelow said.
Before any satellites were in orbit, the military experimented with the moon as a means for wireless communications in the 1940s and 1950s. President Eisenhower even bounced his voice off the moon in 1959 to congratulate Canada on opening the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory: “The transmission of this message by way of the moon — a distance of almost half a million miles — emphasizes the technical importance of your new laboratory and is a specific illustration of the scientific cooperation between Canada and the United States.”
In more recent decades, ham operators have built their own dishes and dedicated their own resources to talk to each other via the moon using voices or Morse code. But generally, the larger the dish the better the quality, so Barthelow was thrilled when the 150-foot dish at SRI International in California was recently modified and tested for EME, or Earth-moon-Earth transmissions for the upcoming global bounce.
“The difference in EME signal quality between this dish, and conventional EME antennas would be like listening to U2 in a stadium on a 10-watt, battery boom box at home plate, with you 500 feet away in the center field seats, compared to hearing U2 over a full 2-million-watt PA set up for a stadium concert,” Barthelow said. “It is that radically different.”
SRI principle engineer Michael Cousins and others are donating time to help the amateur operators with the technical challenges of a much larger antenna and a more powerful transmitter, as well as the difficulties of aiming a signal at a spinning moon and receiving the bounce from its uneven surface.
“This is a ‘golly gee wouldn’t it be fun’ kind of project,” Cousins said. “When you have a hobby, you usually like to push yourself a little and learn.”
The impulse to hear your own echo probably goes back to early humans shouting into canyons. Now, the World Moon Bounce will expand the range and audience of echoes to commemorate the astronauts who first talked from the moon, and offers regular folks a chance to visit the moon — at least vocally.