A Silent Isolation Room For Satellites

Outer space, indoors

Local Color

Built in 1967, DTU’s anechoic chamber was orginally black, but “it was like working in a grave,” says Olav Breinbjerg, an antenna engineer. So in the nineties, new absorbers were painted a cheerful blue.

More than 1,000 working satellites orbit Earth. As space becomes increasingly crowded, there’s a greater chance that the satellites’ radio signals could overlap. To avoid that problem, which disrupts communications, satellite antennas must transmit only within a narrow frequency band. The radio frequency anechoic chamber at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is one of the best places in the world to accurately calibrate antennas. A steel Faraday cage surrounding the chamber blocks interference from external sources, such as Wi-Fi and broadband networks. Inside, foam pyramids stop a satellite’s own radio waves from bouncing around, to ensure that a receiver in the chamber measures only the signals coming directly from the antenna and not reflections. (The pyramids dissipate the signals as they travel from tip to base.) Engineers then use the recorded transmission patterns to adjust, and sometimes rebuild, the antenna. After all, if a satellite fails in space, there’s little anyone can do.


The European Space Agency calibrated several research satellites at DTU:

SMOS maps soil moisture and ocean salinity. Launch: 2009

Sentinel-1 will monitor sea ice and polar weather. Launch: 2014

BIOMASS will measure carbon stored in forests. Launch: 2020

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Popular Science.