This 30-foot-tall spiked Faraday cage helps satellites thrive

Looking like a deathtrap in a movie, this room at one of the ESA's test centers plays a critical role in satellite building.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

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They might look mean, but all those blue spikes are actually made from foam to help absorb sound in the chamber. (Click to enlarge.) ESA/Guus Schoonewille

Just as vacuum chambers and swimming pools are used to test space suits, special environments can be necessary to make sure that satellites built on Earth can function in space.

That's exactly what you see in this photo released Thursday by the European Space Agency. It shows the interior of a room with 30-foot-high walls called the Maxwell Test Chamber. It's located in the ESA's facility in the Dutch city of Noordwijk at the largest satellite-testing facility in Europe.

The room has metal walls that convert it into a Faraday cage, a structure that shields the inside from any external electromagnetic signals. In addition, the walls are coated in hundreds of foam pyramids that absorb sound as well as any other signals produced inside the room, "mimicking the infinite void of space," according to the ESA.

This creates an environment in which researchers can test a satellite to see if its equipment all works together or if there's any internal interference.

Faraday cages are named for electrically minded scientist Michael Faraday, who invented and tested out the idea in the early 1800s. They work on the principle that an electromagnetic discharge will travel along the outside of a conductive cage, keeping the inside free from the current.

Airplanes act as Faraday cages, protecting passengers when the plane is struck by lightning. An artist even created a wearable dress that saved her from a million volts. You can build your own cage with some cardboard and aluminum foil (and a few other things), or you can just use a trash can as a makeshift way to protect your electronic devices if your neighborhood ever gets hit with an electromagnetic pulse device.

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