What is (and imminently “was”) HAARP?

HAARP transmitters
HAARP Transmitter Array / Image by Chris Fallen

Googling HAARP used to be useless, which was astonishing for someone of my generation. Even now, most results outline the conspiracy theories behind the $300,000,0000 facility in rural Alaska.

Occasionally my good friend and coworker, Dr. Chris Fallen, spoke about HAARP and his experiments there. Over months and many cups of coffee, I gathered that Fallen was creating artificial auroras with a huge radio transmitter in order to study the natural aurora. However, Fallen would never call what he creates aurora proper.

“I don’t particularly like the term ‘artificial aurora’ because when we think of the aurora we think of this grand light-show — but the so-called ‘artificial aurora,’ which I’d rather call ‘artificial air-glow’ is really just a spot in the sky. The region in which HAARP is interacting with the atmosphere is rather large. It’s maybe 60 to 100 kilometers in diameter, depending on the frequency that we’re transmitting and other configurations of the transmitter — so that 60 to 100 kilometers. While it’s a large region, it’s also located about 150 to 250 kilometers in altitude. So if you’re to step outside and see this so-called artificial aurora, it’d be about the size of your thumbnail held at arms’ length, and it would be very very faint,” explains Fallen.

In February, the subject of HAARP increasingly dominated my coffee break conversation with Fallen. Eventually it even crept into my conversations with others at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, because the Air Force Research Laboratory expressed a desire to move toward “reclamation,” in which case the world’s most powerful high-frequency radio transmitter would be dismantled.

Funded by Congress and the Department of Defense, HAARP had been under what Fallen terms: “More or less continuous development for about 20 years.” According to Fallen, HAARP has “More or less matured in the last five years but it started out as a much smaller array that’s grown in a number of different build-out phases.”

HAARP is a phased array antenna. “Instead of a regular radio antenna which might consist of one or half a dozen antennas,” Fallen outlines, “HAARP consists of 180 cross-dipole antennas which can all operate more or less independently.”

One of the advantages of this powerful instrument is that those 180 antennas, which act together as one giant antenna or satellite dish, can be electronically (rather than manually) steered. This gets physicists like Fallen excited. He tells me: “So the beam can be focused in different directions very very quickly! And the beam can also be shaped differently. There’s all sorts of very creative experiment modes that stress the transmitter and cause pieces to burst into flames and arch and do other expensive damage to the machine.” Which was a concern for poor Fallen recently, as rookie operator in training.

HAARP wire grid
Dr. Chris Fallen describes his photo: “Looking up at the “ground screen” at HAARP. It provides a smooth reflective surface for the HF electromagnetic waves (between ~2.7 to 9.5 MHz) transmitted by the phased-array antenna(s) above. It also prevents most of the RF energy from reaching people working on the ground below the antennas, similar to how a microwave oven screen protects hungry observers’ eyeballs from the ~2.5 GHz waves inside, except the “holes” in this screen at HAARP are about the size of the front side window in a passenger car.” / Image by Chris Fallen

Although Fallen is now a professor at UAF, his first visit to HAARP was years ago as a physics student and member of the physics club. He recalls: “HAARP, at the time, held an annual open house event where the public could tour the facility and talk to the scientist.” When Fallen saw how “Unique and interesting” this place was, “That’s when I decided to do my Ph.D thesis research using the HAARP facility itself.”

For his thesis, Fallen used HAARP and Arctic Region Supercomputing Center resources to create a one-dimensional model of the ionosphere. The ionosphere is the partially ionized portion of the thermosphere, which is a layer of the atmosphere extending from about 80 kilometers [50 miles] altitude, up to about 1,000 kilometers altitude. It is the last bit of the atmosphere astronauts leave before they enter space. Here the atmosphere is so thin that electrons separated from atoms by sunlight are able to exist freely for short periods of time before they are captured by a positive ion nearby. The number of free electrons is essential for radio propagation.

HAM radio operators are able to communicate over the horizon by bouncing their signals off the ionosphere. Similarly, before GPS satellite signals reach the ground they must pass through the ionosphere gases. Experts in both fields know that solar and geomagnetic storms which unsettle the ionosphere can cause problems. For example, solar flares can trigger radio blackouts and significant GPS location errors. This is especially a concern for pilots flying over the Arctic, since planes usually lose contact with most geosynchronous satellites, forcing them to rely on radio communication.

The “artificial airglow” Fallen creates with HAARP is caused by ionization of the ionosphere. A number of factors can influence changes in the ionosphere. For example, solar flares that generate very bright x-rays can cause additional ionization of the lower altitudes of the ionosphere. When the free electrons collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere, their energy is turned into light and results in aurora sightings from Earth, much as a television emits light when electrons hit the television’s screen.

Fallen explains, “They can have coronal mass injections, which are basically large bursts of high-speed plasma which travels through space and then may reach the magnetosphere of the Earth. Then that plasma can travel down the magnetic field lines and interact with the ionosphere here on Earth, and we often perceive that as an aurora that occurs several days after we observe the coronal mass ejections with telescopes.”

HAARP fuel generators
36,000 gallon diesel fuel capacity for generators that supply up to 13 megawatts of power for HAARP. / Image by Chris Fallen

The first human-initiated modification to the ionosphere occurred in the 1930s, “Back when a powerful radio station called Radio Luxemburg started transmitting,” recounts Fallen. This 150 kilowatt station was mysteriously modifying a region of the atmosphere that other radio waves were passing through. “It was an annoyance,” as Fallen describes it. People listening to different stations were able to hear Radio Luxemburg during quiet passages of their own programs. They were “Listening basically to the reflection off of the ionosphere,” says Fallen. “Since commercial radio is an expensive business, a lot of effort went into trying to diagnose the cause. They looked into a number of different causes and ruled them all out. It was determined that radio Luxemburg was modifying a region of the atmosphere; basically the region of the ionosphere that these other radio waves were passing through, and modulating the ionosphere in a way that imparted Radio Luxemburg’s programming on a different frequency. So it was an undesirable effect and that was the first unintentional radio modification of the ionosphere… So one of the things I’ve always wanted to do at HAARP or any other ionosphere modification facility, is to try to duplicate the Luxemburg effect.”

Fallen’s dream became a reality. While his students were enjoying spring break, Fallen spent his time in Gakona, Alaska, learning to operate the most powerful radio transmitter in the world. He blogged: “In this process I will tell a rambling mad tale… The story ends, for now, with me driving away with the access keys and manuals to HAARP.”

Over the past month Fallen has made the trip to Gakona many times. On his last trip he was able to recreate the Luxemburg effect. I was surprised HAARP was powerful enough to manage it, because Radio Luxemburg was a 150 kilowatt transmitter and HAARP only transmits 3.6 megawatts of power. However, Radio Luxemburg was transmitting in all directions. Fallen is quick to remind me that HAARP has that array of moveable antennas. “So in some sense you can’t just divide 3.6 megawatts by 150 kilowatts and arrive at a figure that HAARP is some number of times more powerful than Radio Luxemburg. The beam is also much more tightly focused. In some ways it’s far more powerful than that,” he says.

Unfortunately, it looks as though “reclamation” of this powerful, $300,000,000 ionosphere laboratory is imminent. Fallen has one more trip to make out to Gakona, at the end of the month, before he packs up his stuff and HAARP propagates its final transmission.

Azara Mohammadi
Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond