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Microwaving Saturn

For most people, a microwave means a quick way to "nuke" your food.

But for LSU Math Professor Dr. Robert Lipton, a microwave means another thing: “Deep space communications – like how do you control the Mars Rover? They can use microwaves or radiowaves.”

LSU is participating in a Multi University Research Initiative Grant project, or MURI Grant, funded by the Department of Defense. They're working in conjunction with MIT, The Ohio State University, the University of California Irvine and the University of New Mexico.

Their focus: Transformational Electromagnetics Research. Mainly, how to increase the amplitude of microwaves through the use of metamaterials.

The simple explanation is, Lipton and his colleagues are using an amplifier tube as a blow horn for a microwave to increase its amplitude. An electron beam is passed down the tube, and a microwave is sent through as well. The metamaterial slows the wave down so that the wave can steal energy from the electron beam, and Viola: a much stronger, larger signal is created.

Dr. Lipton has another, musical analogy.

“So what we do is," Dr. Lipton says, "you can think of the electrons as the air blowing into a woodwind, you can think of the metamaterial structure as the reed, which sets up the vibrations, and the whole traveling wave tube itself as being the musical instrument, which is the amplifier.”

So with that said – what’s the point of their work? Who, or what’s on the receiving end of this?

“Instead of just controlling something on Mars remotely," says Dr. Lipton, "what it does is it increases the range. So we can talk to things on Saturn, we can talk to things very much further away.”

And Dr. Lipton says, don’t let the funding from the Department of Defense give you any wrong ideas about the purpose.

“None of this is classified," Dr. Lipton says. "The idea is that people can take these results and run with them any way they want.”