When it comes to strange applications, the “ether” arguably has more than its share. To prove it, in my next few blogs I’m going to look at a few that have caught my attention over the years, and one that definitely meets the criteria for “Weird RF” is the Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), a program administered by the Office of Naval Research and funded by U.S. Air Force and Navy, and DARPA, and located in Gakona, AK (2010 census: population 218). Work began in 1990 and it was made fully operational and instrumented in June 2007. The prime contractor was BAE Systems Advanced Technologies.
HAARP and Scenic Gakona, Alaska. (Source: HAARP.)
HAARP’s mission is - or was, as it was dismantled last year - to study the characteristics of the ionosphere, which as every ham knows is a mysterious place. Its constantly-changing, unpredictable nature has long confounded scientists trying to study it and communicators trying to exploit it. As the July 4, 1926, edition of the New York Times exclaimed:
ERRATIC BEHAVIOR OF WAVES BIG PUZZLE FOR ENGINEERS
Vagaries of the Ether Are Greatest Limitation to Progress, Says Dr. J.H. Dellinger --
No Relation Between Radio and Aurora Borealis
Not surprisingly, the HAARP program attracted its share of conspiracy theorists, who surmised that the facility’s real mission was nefarious. Various activities were ascribed to it, from changing the weather, to viewing distant underground structures, mind control, the crash of TWA Flight 800, and even causing the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. However, it could create its own auroral effects, and since you can scatter signals off the charged particles of the aurora borealis at VHF and UHF frequencies, I leave it to you to come up with your own theories about how DoD might find that useful.
HAARP was located at the site of a defunct over-the-horizon (OTH) radar near one of the two poles of the Earth where ionospheric intensity is greatest. Its main instrument was the Ionospheric Research Instrument (IRI), and it was a formidable system. It consisted of 30 transmitter shelters, each containing six pairs of 10-kW transmitters delivering a collective 3.6 MW of radiated power from 2.8 to 10MHz. The transmitters were located within a field of 180 antennas mounted 72 ft high, and spaced 80 ft apart in a 12 x 15 rectangular grid covering about 33 acres. An elevated ground screen attached to the towers at the 15 ft level acted as a reflector. Transmission from each antenna could be adjusted to form a narrow antenna pattern pointed toward the ionosphere.
The HAARP Antenna Farm in Better Days. (Photo: HAARP.)
The system sent a pulsed or CW signal upward and the effects of the transmission on the ionosphere were evaluated. CW was used for ionospheric modification and pulsed signals when the IRI was used as a radar system. When both modes were used, the ionosphere was first modified using CW and the signal decay was measured with pulsed transmissions.
The facility must have truly been something to behold, at least for the RF crazed (like the author), and it was no secret. In fact, the staff actually held an annual open house in late summer when you could “tour” Gakona and the HAARP facility, and take in some fishing on the Gulkana River, too. But alas it’s gone, along with the official Web site.
However, Wikipedia describes all of the research that was conducted by HAARP and a lot more, and an interesting article in Nature is still available as a PDF on the Web. Another article, from Wired
traces how HAARP began, along with the politics that surrounded it. In retrospect, one of the more interesting HAARP tidbits is that it was championed by former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, of “bridge to nowhere”
fame. But all told, it’s now just an entry in the annals of Weird RF.
Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.
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