If you’ve been alive for the past 10-20 years, you’ve probably heard a few things about something called “radio frequency.” It’s been a pretty big deal since the invention of the radio in 1895, so you probably know it exists. And, given the name, it’s easy to guess what radio frequency entails. In a nutshell, radio frequency refers to the electromagnetic wave range that is responsible for allowing us to communicate with technology.
Radio, television and phones are the most common uses for radio frequency. They do have many other, more obscure uses, too. For example, they’re used for MRIs and minimally invasive surgeries. That kind of equipment isn’t common, so it doesn’t cause much of an issue to astronomers.
When radio interference was a common but level field, it was easy for astronomers to find the baseline and work around it. However, the kind of radio frequencies used in general consumer electronics are becoming something of a problem.
Take a minute and think about it. How often do you use the Internet in one day? How many devices do you use? You probably look at your cell phone first thing in the morning. You might use a GPS to get to work or to navigate around a traffic jam. You might use your phone before you leave to check traffic, and while in your car, you’re probably listening to the radio. Maybe you use voice commands to check the weather or check with Alexa to see if you’ve forgotten anything. And that’s before you get to work!
If you’re watching a movie where the sound maintains a consistent volume throughout, you can adjust it once, maybe twice, and be done. If the movie you’re watching has loud fight scenes, very quiet talking points, blaring loud commercials and there’s someone cooking in the next room background who occasionally needs to use a blender, you’ll be adjusting the volume constantly.
This is similar to how astronomers feel about all the interference from modern tech. Practically every object in space requires radio waves to communicate with the controllers on Earth. This is fine for the ISS, satellites and other spacecraft. But all the communication and interference from the millions of people using cell phones, tablets or any other connected devices can get in the way and screw up communications.
As we increase our connected lives and buy smart TVs, refrigerators, ovens, fans, thermostats and pet monitors, we increase the general noisiness. Spacecraft have to find ways to send their vocals back to Earth over constantly increasing volumes. Pretty soon, those signals might start getting lost in the din. This also affects the faint radio signals that exist naturally in space, which astronomers study to look for extraterrestrial intelligence and learn more about the history of the universe.
One issue comes from accidental transmissions on the same frequency. If you’ve ever gotten some feedback and heard another conversation bleeding through on your phone, you know what this is like. In the U.S., the FCC controls the radio frequencies. Some of them have been put aside for astronomy and exist as “quiet zones” where astronomers can look for specific signals without interference.
These bands exist at only a few megahertz (MHz), including 1,400 and 1,600. Those two ranges are used to look for neutral hydrogen and hydroxyl, specifically. But the number of connected devices is still increasing. And companies can only broadcast on so many bands of frequency.
That has led to some pretty fierce competition for radio frequency. Since so many people watch TV through the Internet now, some Internet channels have started buying out old TV frequencies. That’s making some astronomers nervous. With the most recent price range for new bands coming in at a whopping $19 billion for 84 MHz, the competition is fierce.
Fortunately, science is aware of the potential problem and is already working to solve it! They have created an organization called CORF, for the Committee on Radio Frequencies. The goal of the committee is to convince world leaders they need to protect the frequencies that are dedicated to astronomical research. This is the first step to protect those bands and allow astronomers to continue looking for extraterrestrial life forms.
The problem that remains is that the FCC can’t always keep up with new technologies. For example, there is no current law about which frequency your smart fridge is supposed to use. That means a company could wind up using a protected frequency without realizing they’re creating a problem. It’s also why sharing this information is so important. Of course, sometimes the interference is just an accident, and that’s the most common kind.
The last quiet spectrum exists between 275-450 gigahertz. Right now, that’s the realm of scientists, where they can study radio frequencies from space with no interference. But now communications companies are trying to push into it. The technology isn’t quite there, but it will be soon.
If we don’t take steps to protect some frequencies for astronomers to use, we’ll have lost whatever small hopes we had of finding life. Heck, we’ll even lose a significant amount of our ability to look for other planets and stars. Keep the channels quiet. Tell people it’s important. Otherwise, we’ll never know if we’re truly alone… or not.