Rock Garden

At the peak of the Cold War in 1976, the Soviet Union began working on Mir, a new space station and their latest effort to stay ahead of the United States in the Space Race. Mir was preceded by the USSR’s Salyut space stations, first launched in 1971, and also by NASA’s Skylab, which was launched in 1973 using modified components from the recently cancelled Apollo program. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1993, the Mir program was still in full swing as the space station was under continuous construction and development. The program was eventually merged with the European Space Agency and NASA’s program for a space station called Freedom, with the joint effort resulting in the creation of the International Space Station. Construction of the ISS began in 1998 with the launch of a Russian cargo module that was originally destined for Mir. The Russian’s named this module Zarya, which translates to “dawn” or “sunrise.” Zarya became an alias for the ISS that is still used today.

Meanwhile a different group of scientists had been working independently on a more fantastical project that to this day is often viewed as fringe science, even though the possible outcomes holds far more potential than many of the initiatives carried out during the Space Race (which were mainly pursued for positioning during the Cold War). As early as 1896, Nikola Tesla began experimenting with radio astronomy and developing technology to communicate with life on Mars. In 1959 Giusseppe Cocconi and Phillip Morrison published a paper titled Searching for Interstellar Communications. The paper described that “interstellar communication across the galactic plasma without dispersion in direction and flight-time is practical, so far as we know, only with electromagnetic waves,” and through logical deduction concluded that “in the most favoured radio region there lies a unique, objective standard of frequency, which must be known to every observer in the universe: the outstanding radio emission line at 1,420 MHz (21 cm wavelength) of neutral hydrogen.” Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe and its frequency, also known as the hydrogen line, is exceptional at penetrating interstellar cosmic dust that is opaque to light. The 21 cm wavelength is also capable of passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, making it a prime candidate for observation. Seven months after Cocconi and Morrison published their paper, astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drank carried out one of SETI’s (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) pioneering experiments, Project Ozma, in which he listened for signs of life from two distant star systems at the frequency of neutral hydrogen.

Then, on August 15th, 1977 at the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University, we received a signal. The Big Ear telescope was slightly larger than three football fields. It was a stationary telescope, and scanned the universe with the rotation of the Earth (as does the radio telescope included in Apollo TBD). This gave the telescope a 72-second window to receive any particular signal before it rotated out of reception. The signal came from a location within the constellation Sagittarius, and lasted for the entire 72-second window, peaking and then falling as the telescope turned away. It was 30 times louder than any typical background noise, and fell incredibly close to the precise frequency of neutral hydrogen (within .05 MHz). When astronomer Jerry Ehman was reading the computer printout a few days later and came across the data, he circled it in red pen and wrote “Wow!” The Wow! signal, as it came to be known, was exactly what researchers were looking for. Unfortunately, despite extensive efforts, they were never able to find it again or determine its source. Whether or not it came from an intelligent life form remains a mystery.

The radio telescope included in the Rock Garden installation is constructed using four identical Yagi-Uda antennas, built using tiki torches, patinated copper, and tie-dyed t-shirts. The four antennas were precisely designed and arranged to maximize the gain and aperture of the telescope. The incoming signal is routed through a low noise amplifier designed to increase the strength of the incoming signal at 1,420 MHz, and to reduce any signals above and below that frequency. The low noise amplifier is powered by the Sumrak Power Module Array (Sumrak translates from Russian to “dusk”). The next device in the chain is a passive microwave filter, which further eliminates frequencies above and below 1,420 MHz. The signal is then routed to a USB card originally designed to receive TV signals which was found to have a much broader frequency range, allowing it to be used as a component of a software designed radio system. The USB card sends the raw signal data to the Macbook, which is running a program that interprets and visualizes the incoming signal.

The installation Rock Garden is on display through May 10th as a part of the exhibition Apollo TBD at Samuel Freeman Gallery in Culver City.