The skies at night may sometimes seem silent, but in fact they are almost always buzzing with radio waves sending data across the horizon. And in Alaska, one remote and usually quiet part of the sky is getting a loud wake-up call.
Scientists from the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) have created a veritable forest of antennas in one isolated field in Alaska. 180 poles rise more than 72 feet off the ground. The purpose of this technological forest of antennas? These interconnected devices will beam 2.1 megawatts of radio energy into the ionosphere (the layer of atmosphere that runs 50-600 feet off the ground and contains a high concentration of ions and free electrons).
Researchers hope that the radio signals will excite electrons in the ionosphere and turn them into plasma waves. These waves will theoretically help scientists to develop a better understanding of satellite activity, allowing them to improve their functionality and efficiency. Additionally, the project will help the scientists to get a clear picture of radio waves and how they work.
As if that’s not ambitious enough, HAARP is going to generate artificial aurorae. When fully powered, the transmitter will produce a glowing plasma that mimics the stunning aurora borealis. Besides being visually appealing, this project has some serious scientific applications: it will help researchers to learn about the ionosphere, and how to better protect the planet from ultraviolet radiation. Additionally, the project will give scientists a deeper understanding of extreme solar events, and provide us with helpful hints on how to best handle them.
It’s a two-tiered project for the forest of antennas out in Alaska, but the team is confident that they will both prove to be successful. Should they prove triumphant, HAARP could enjoy a long and fruitful existence; if the experiments don’t provide the data people are looking for, the agencies behind funding could take their resources elsewhere. Whatever happens, people close enough to see the artificial aurorae are in for a rare visual (and scientifically significant) experience.