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Channel 37


Since World War II the television and radio industries have enjoyed phenomenal growth. Equally remarkable has been the progress of radio astronomy, now one of the productive frontiers of physics. Because the communication industries try to send strong signals to all parts of the globe and radio astronomy tries to receive weak extra-terrestrial signals, the growth of these two fields must inevitably lead to conflict.

The Federal Communications Commission now proposes to license a new television station, Channel 37, in Paterson, N.J. This will be only the first of nineteen Channel 37s which the F.C.C. expects to spread across the nation so that they will not overlap. Unfortunately broadcasting networks on this channel will transmit radio waves on the frequencies between 608 and 614 megacycles per second. Radio astronomers find this portion of the spectrum very useful because it is roughly an octave below (half the frequency) of the 21-centimeter line of unionized hydrogen. If Channel 37 becomes nationwide, all astronomical work on that band will be forced to stop because the sensitive antennas of the scientist will be receiving Gunsmoke instead of the Milky Way.

Channel 37 is only one of 68 new channels which are being opened up to TV. The U.S. now guarantees only the 21-centimeter line for the exclusive use of radio astronomy; it is conceivable that if the communication industries continue to grow this frequency will be the only radio "window" left to the scientist.

Already the American Astronomical Society has requested the F.C.C. not to release the new license. The National Academy of Science, besides arguing the merits of astronomy's case against Channel 37, has had the foresight to ask the F.C.C. for a general study of radio astronomy and its frequency requirements. In response to these requests the government has temporarily limited he new channel to the Paterson station alone and forbidden transmission between midnight and 7 a.m. (These hours are chosen solely for the convenience of the television industry because radio antennas can operate effectively 24 hours a day.) In 1968, however, when the University of Illinois expects to complete its sky survey, the F.C.C. proposes to issue round-the-clock licenses for the whole nation. The entire case is still under consideration, however.

The Federal government has already shown its belief in the value of radio astronomy by giving millions of dollars in grants to observatories across the country through the National Science Foundation, the Air Force, and other agencies. The very least it can do is attempt to guarantee the work of radio astronomers a future. The F.C.C. should follow the suggestion of the National Academy of Sciences and make a complete study of the frequencies which radio astronomers use and need.

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