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Air Force plans to pull plug on Alaska's controversial HAARP facility

Dermot Cole
The HAARP element array in Gakona, Alaska. The Air Force has announced that it is seeking alternatives for running the expensive facility. HAARP photo

FAIRBANKS -- Whenever anything unusual happens, whether it is Fukushima radiation or the "polar vortex" in the Lower 48, someone somewhere will connect it to radio signals emanating from the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility in Gakona, 15 miles northeast of Glennallen.

Every hurricane, typhoon, tornado, heat wave, flood, drought and blizzard can thus be traced without any thought by conspiracy theorists to the Air Force site, not far from the Tok Cut-Off, just east of the Richardson Highway. Nothing can stop the tsunami of HAARP hysteria, which complicates the matter of discussing its future.

The $290 million facility is a vestige of the Sen. Ted Stevens earmark era in Alaska, valued by scientists from the military and many of America’s leading universities, who see it as a “cosmic plasma laboratory without walls,” with implications not only for the military but also for basic science and communications.

The interaction of solar radiation with the outer edges of the atmosphere creates the ionosphere, a region that begins about 60 miles above the Earth's surface that is central to understanding, improving or inhibiting electronic communications, as military leaders told Stevens. The Navy wanted HAARP so it could learn to communicate with submarines worldwide, while the Air Force tried to discover how satellites could be protected from destruction after a high-altitude nuclear blast or powerful magnetic storm.

Today, the biggest change on the horizon for HAARP is back down on earth -- the quiet announcement by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) that it wants to pull the plug.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello wrote last fall that the Air Force lab “intends to cease operations and sustainment of the facility located in Gakona, Ak.

“Given the facility overhead costs, declining budget and competing priorities, AFRL is pursuing a transfer of the facility to another entity that would accept ownership and operations,” Masiello said. If the Air Force can’t find someone to take it over, it will be dismantled, he said.

Last summer the facility was temporarily shut down, but Ahtna Facility Services took over the operations and maintenance Sept. 30.  But the Air Force says it can’t afford the $4 to $5 million a year its costs to run the site, the most powerful ionospheric heater in the world. It is called a heater because the energy directed skyward from the 180 antennas spread over 30 acres is used to heat electrons in the ionosphere, not in the atmosphere below.

Who could run HAARP?

Following the Oct. 13 warning letter by Masiello to the Office of Naval Research, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska, the government began planning for a HAARP summit next month in Washington, D.C.

“The purpose of the meeting is to decide as a government, as opposed to just the Air Force, what to do about HAARP -- keep it open or close the site and remediate it,” said Bob McCoy, the director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

One way to keep it open would be to upgrade its facilities by transferring an advanced piece of radar equipment from the Poker Flat research range north of Fairbanks. The move would be for at least two years, according to McCoy.

The Advanced Modular Incoherent Scatter Radar, a National Science Foundation facility in operation at Poker Flat since 2007, is used to measure "the most fundamental ionospheric properties,” the foundation says. It is an interconnected series of 4,096 flat-panel antennas set up in a grid about one-third the size of a football field on an elevated structure sloped like a grandstand. It has a combined power of up to 2 megawatts.

The “beam is steered by carefully controlling the electrical signals delivered to each of the 4,096 antenna elements,” Joshua Semeter, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Boston University, writes on his website. “This electronic steering capability means that data can be acquired, in essence, simultaneously from a grid of predefined directions, analogous to the way an image is acquired from a digital camera.”

Unlike a camera, however, the radar gathers information along the path of each beam, allowing the construction of three-dimensional images of the particles in the ionosphere.

The Poker Flat system can be dismantled and moved for $750,000 to $1 million, the NSF says, while a new structure to hold the radar at the HAARP site would be about $200,000.

The Air Force has been sending out signals for at least a couple of years that it wanted out of HAARP. That intention was clear last May, when the National Research Council held a two-day workshop in Washington on the science potential of the site, how to pay for it and how to get more researchers using it.

The workshop included guests and organizers from Johns Hopkins, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Illinois, Boston University, Miami University of Ohio, University of Michigan, Virginia Tech, University of Utah, the National Science Foundation, SRI International, MIT, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Maryland.

“Some participants at the workshop cited the unusual history of the HAARP facility as a contributor to its underutilization by the broader community of researchers,” an 83-page report on the workshop said.

Stevens' earmarks meant that the documentation and justification required of other facilities were not produced for the HAARP startup. This history and the heavy military involvement “may have contributed to the perception” that it was unduly difficult to do general scientific work there, and this may have prevented many researchers from learning about HAARP’s potential, the National Research Council document said.

“At various points in this workshop, participants proposed ways to make the facility more welcoming and user friendly and better coordinated” with existing programs by the National Science Foundation.

Moving the Poker Flat radar was a big one.

“Experiments with the combined facility could then come under the usual NSF procedures, which are more open and familiar to many scientists,” the workshop report said.

A radar system had been proposed for the HAARP site in the early 1990s, but was never funded.

Other potential uses

Louis Lanzerotti, a physics professor with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said there is a future for HAARP beyond the Air Force, but it depends upon the research priorities of scientists who could use the facility.

The workshop participants agreed that “the combination of extremely high power and the capability to be rapidly reconfigured to create a variety of spatial and temporal antenna patterns is unique in the world to HAARP or, more properly, its ionospheric instrument,” the National Research Council said.

Experiments at HAARP since 2007, when the facility was finished, have “resulted in observations of phenomena that multiple participants characterized as new and exciting,” but the lack of a radar system hindered complete analysis.

The report includes a summary of potential practical applications for HAARP:

• Space debris: One potential application -- still theoretical -- summarized “concepts for high-payoff strategies for removal of space debris.” HAARP waves could be used to increase drag on old satellites that have become space debris. With increased drag, their orbits will deteriorate more quickly and they will burn up on re-entry. The report says that HAARP might be able to do this as it “has been known to produce ion outflow that drags oxygen atoms to an altitude of 800 miles.”

• Sending signals: The creation of artificial plasma layers presents "the possibility of creating long-path propagation channels on demand that would otherwise be unavailable.” These could be used to inhibit communications, as well as enhance them, “depending upon the desired application.”

Satellite links: HAARP might provide “artificial ionization clouds” that could make high-frequency communication more reliable, as they are not subject to fluctuations in the ionosphere. The irregularities in the ionosphere “have long been known to seriously degrade communications and navigation signals from satellites.”

• Nuclear damage: HAARP could be used to emit low frequency waves into the magnetosphere, high above Earth, to track the impact on trapped high-energy electrons and protons. Data from these experiments could help design systems for “radiation belt remediation,” which could be necessary for protecting satellites in the event of a high-altitude nuclear blast or a severe geomagnetic storm.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.