A Rash Of Mysterious Radio Signals Turned Out To Actually Be A Bunch Of Microwave Ovens

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04.15.15 5 Comments


The topic of unexplained scientific sounds is a fascinating and mysterious rabbit hole that I’ve fallen down quite a few times in the middle of the night. The “wow!” signal or the deep sea “bloop” are things that drive my imagination a bit, but always manage to bring it back to a grounded scientific solution. A disappointing, dream crushing, scientific solution.

Take this recent revelation from Australia for example. For years, scientists have been recording short, strong radio bursts called perytons. If you’ve never heard of them before, you’re not alone. Just be sure to scroll down on the Wikipedia page so you don’t actually believe it is a mythical winged deer creature.

Now a scientific radio perytons is a fast burst of terrestrial origin that mimics or replicates the same signals scientists are searching for in deep space. As it turns out, the true source of most of these perytons is quite boring and typical. From National Geographic:

For years, astronomers had been puzzled by these brief but intense bursts of radio waves that in some ways appeared to be coming from deep space. There have been dozens of reported perytons, some dating back to the 1990s, and theories about the signals’ origin included ball lightning, aircraft, and components of the telescopes themselves.

But almost since the beginning, one thing has been clear about perytons: Despite mimicking a deep space signal, they’re produced by a source that’s somewhere near Earth. Astronomers knew this because perytons simultaneously show up in multiple viewing fields rather than arriving from a single point…

Petroff and her colleagues discovered the source of perytons after they installed a real-time radio interference monitor at the Parkes telescope. In January, the telescope detected three of the signals – and the interference monitor picked up three simultaneous interference signatures. The team recognized the interloping frequencies as possibly belonging to a microwave oven.

When Petroff and her colleagues tested their hypothesis, they found they could create perytons on demand simply by opening the oven door before the timer had dinged.

So when you need your Hot Pocket faster than your microwave timer is allowing, you’re shooting out a mini radio signal that might be making some guy piss his pants with glee. The folks at the Parkes Observatory in Australia found that their nearby microwaves were emitting these signals.

Other observatories have dealt with this microwave issue by essentially banning any and all devices that might emit a signal that could throw off the readings:

Sensitive radio telescopes, like the ones at Parkes, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, can easily detect those rogue microwaves if the telescopes are pointed in the right direction.

“Microwave ovens are a problem for us – and none exist on site. They are prohibited,” says Arecibo director Robert Kerr. Other facilities that don’t ban microwave ovens altogether shield them in enclosures called Faraday cages, which are supposed to prevent detectable radiation from leaking out. In general, scientists try very hard to eliminate any potential source of Earth-based interference from mucking up radio astronomy data – and that means things like cell phones are a no-no near telescopes.

“Alas, radio telescope sites may appear to be occupied by Luddites,” Kerr says. “No microwaves, no cell phones, no wireless routers, no bluetooth printers or headphones, and – more due to funding – often no food.”

I wonder if anybody ever took this on in a parody for Carl Sagan’s Contact. Imagine how that movie would’ve played out if Jodie Foster thought she had a huge radio burst proving contact with intelligent life, but then it turns out to be William Fichtner’s blind guy just fooling with the microwave oven. Movie over with no crappy space daddy ending.

That’s actually better.

(Via National Geographic)

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