8:43am

Mon October 15, 2012
Krulwich Wonders...

Be Nice To The Moon. Stop Writing On It

Originally published on Mon October 15, 2012 12:09 pm

Dot

Dash

Dot

Dash

This is the moon as Morse code.

Beautiful, yes, but not right. The moon isn't a dot. It's too elegant, too pale, too ghostly to be a bit of "information." It's got moods, changes, and on certain nights it's got a man on it, with eyes and a mouth, and yet some people treat the moon as if it's something you can write on.

All over the world, ham radio operators and Morse code enthusiasts beam dot, dash messages straight at the moon, then wait 2.7 seconds for the signal to bounce back. They call these "E.M.E." transmissions, which stands for "Earth-Moon-Earth" or — more popularly — "moonbouncing." I suppose it's fun to smack little beeps against a sleepy rock 239,000 miles away and have those beeps come flying back at you. Plus, it's easy.

Moonbouncing With The Morse Resource

Anybody with a good transmitter and an antenna "capable of being rotated in both the azimuth and elevation planes" (ask your hardware store or any ham radio jock to explain) can bounce messages off the moon. You don't even have to know Morse code. There's a shortcut. Just type your message ("Happy Birthday, Munchkins!") onto a screen at The Morse Resource and in less than a minute they translate it into long and short beeps you can hurtle moonward. The moon must be twitching.

Not so long ago, a Scottish artist, Katie Paterson, turned Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata into Morse code (yup, you can do that, too) and bounced it off the moon. Some musical phrases got trapped in moon craters and didn't come back, which she found so intriguing, she put the ricocheted, fragmented Moonlight Sonata on a player piano and you can now see her moonbounced, Morse-coded piece being not performed by anyone, the keys going up and down on their own, on YouTube.

The latest insult (for those of us who think being Morse-coded upon is a kind of diss) took place in the dirt of Mars itself. A few weeks ago, NASA began testing its newest rover, Curiosity. They turned it on and let it move a little, and it turns out Curiosity's wheels have little grooves in them that are dots and dashes of Morse code, spelling J ... P ... and L ... for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can see them here.

Why dig Morse-coded signals into the soil on Mars? So that NASA can look down from orbiters above and measure how far the rover has gone. Every time they see a new "J", "P" and "L" in Morse, they know the rover has moved a full turn of its wheels, which is a specific distance. It's like a measuring stick. Here's JPL engineer Armen Toorian, to demonstrate ...

I have no argument with NASA's need to measure, or with artists' desire to play Beethoven in odd places, or with ham operators' idea of fun. In each case, the moon is being used as a tablet to write or bounce Samuel Morse's code on. The moon isn't going to complain. Walls don't complain when kids zap them with graffiti. But that doesn't make it right.

This is a Do Unto Others thing. The moon, in its quiet, moonish way, must be peeved.

A fantasy: If I were the moon goddess, Artemis, I'd be asking Zeus to take a bolt of lightning and zap 'em back, so they feel what it's like to be "bounced" on. Take that, Scottish composer! Rover engineer! Ham radio guy! Nothing too painful. Just pings. In Morse.

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