Radio Signals from Outer Space!

The Bell Telephone Company noticed that static was interfering with its telephone lines, and assigned an engineer to find out why.  Karl Guthe Jansky immediately identified two sources: nearby and distant thunderstorms.  But there was a third source of static – a faint, steady hiss – that he couldn’t pinpoint.

Jansky did what any engineer would do: he built a 100-foot antenna in a field to determine the cause.  Could it be the sun?  No; the static cycle repeated four minutes shy of 24 hours – a sidereal day versus a solar day.  Jansky finally determined that the static was originating from the constellation Sagittarius – the same direction as the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The year was 1931.  Jansky had discovered the first radio waves to originate from beyond the solar system.  His discovery made the front page of the New York Times.  Then it was forgotten.  Bell Labs rejected Jansky’s request for additional funding.  He was reassigned and did no further work in astronomy.

Today, radio astronomy has surpassed traditional optical astronomy for studying the cosmos.  Jansky’s discovery was Nobel Prize-worthy, but he died at age 44 from a heart condition.  Two scientists who built on his work did become Nobel laureates.  Robert Wilson (1978 winner) discovered cosmic microwave background radiation and advanced the Big Bang theory.  Joseph Taylor (1993 winner) discovered a new type of pulsars.  The “jansky” is now the unit of measure for extraterrestrial electromagnetic energy.

The precision and sensitivity of Keysight Technologies (Agilent’s electronic measurement business) spectrum and signal analyzers make them ideal for advanced radio astronomy research.  Keysight flash analog-to-digital converters have helped enable astronomers to observe gamma rays, which occupy the highest levels of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In November, Keysight will become a standalone, publicly traded company.


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