Science: Teen-Age Conversation

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Ever since the first satellites took to space, there has been talk of using them as radio communication links. This week the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that two-way communication via a satellite was probably accomplished for the first time by two 17-year-old radio hams.

Raphael Soifer is a blond, spectacled freshman at M.I.T. In 1958, while still a student at the high-rated Bronx High School of Science, he got interested in a paper by Professor John D. Kraus of Ohio State University. Dr. Kraus reported that a satellite speeding through the outer fringe of the atmosphere trails an ionized wake that can reflect certain kinds of radio waves. Teaming up with his friend Perry Klein, another teen-age New York ham, "Ray" Soifer wrote the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge for detailed schedules of satellite orbits. Whenever a satellite, U.S. or Russian, passed at a reasonable distance, the boys tried to bounce radio waves off its wake.

Last summer Perry Klein's father moved the family to Bethesda, Md. During the fall months, Ray Soifer was kept busy by his studies at M.I.T., had time for his ham equipment only on occasional weekends back home in Manhattan. But late in January Ray came home for a week's vacation. On Feb. 6, two satellites, Explorer VII and Sputnik III, were scheduled to come into range about 1 a.m. He got in touch with Perry, and the two boys tried again. At 12:55 a.m., Soifer transmitted a prearranged code with about 300 watts of power on 21.011 megacycles. After 20 seconds he stopped and listened while Klein transmitted for 20 seconds from Bethesda. They continued this alternating transmission until at 1:05 a.m., when both satellites were passing on low orbits about 150 miles east of the Jersey coast, Soifer heard Klein's signal. Two minutes later, Klein heard his.

Soifer wrote a detailed report and submitted it to M.I.T.'s famed electronics expert, Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner. While verifying Soifer's claim of having made the first known two-way radio communication via satellite, Wiesner is not sure that the signals were reflected by a satellite's ionized trail. They may have been re-radiated by the antennas of one of the passing satellites.

Last week Ray Soifer, who is manager of M.I.T.'s freshman fencing team, was more eager to get over to Harvard for a crucial match than to talk about his achievement. "This is one area, you know, where we teen-agers have as many advantages as older people doing the same work. After all, it started less than four years ago. To me it seemed like a fairly simple plug-in operation. But then I guess they always do, afterward."