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National Science Foundation Funds Creation of Research Lab at Alaska’s HAARP


A 5-year, $9.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant will allow the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Geophysical Institute to establish a new research observatory at the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP). A former military facility, HAARP is now operated by UAF and is home to HAARP Amateur Radio Club’s KL7ERP. The new Subauroral Geophysical Observatory for Space Physics and Radio Science will be dedicated to exploring Earth’s upper atmosphere and geospace environment. The facility’s 33-acre Ionospheric Research Instrument will be the centerpiece of the observatory.

“This NSF support will provide the scientific community increased access to the instruments at the observatory and, hopefully, grow the scientific community,” said Geophysical Institute Director Robert McCoy, the project’s principal investigator.

A second NSF-funded project will add a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) instrument at the site, which will allow the study of other regions of the upper atmosphere. A LiDAR sends pulses of laser light to determine the composition, temperature, and structure of regions of the upper atmosphere from 90 to 150 kilometers. UAF hopes to add additional instruments over time at the Gakona, Alaska, research site.

A short video, about 3 minutes long, displays the HAARP HF antenna system in a more artistic vein. According to the accompanying text, it’s “a full-night photography shoot of the magnificent Class 1 quality night skies over HAARP, and this video and the rare footage in it is the result of that effort. As chance would have it, aurora borealis rolled in halfway in the night, providing a spectacular northern lights show as a backdrop.” The shoot took place in –30 F weather as prolonged total darkness in Alaska predominantly takes place during the winter months. 

Floyd says the HAARP facility is much larger than what’s seen in the video, with many science pads and other large transmit and receive diagnostic systems. He advises turning up the volume.

The research grant will allow scientists to investigate how the sun affects Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere to produce changes in space weather. Their work will help fill gaps in knowledge about the region, which is important because ionospheric disturbances, if severe enough, can disrupt communication systems and damage the power grid.

Research at the observatory is initially expected to include the study of various types of aurora and other occurrences in the ionosphere, which stretches from about 50 to 400 miles above Earth’s surface.

The Gakona facility is a prime location for the study of the ionosphere and magnetosphere because of its location in relation to one of Earth’s magnetic field lines that reaches deep into the magnetosphere, the magnetic field that shields the planet from much of the sun’s plasma energy.

“Amateur radio will clearly benefit with an improved understanding of ionospheric propagation and space weather physics, and providing improved HF propagation prediction modeling data,” HAARP Research Station Chief Engineer and ARRL Life Member Steve Floyd, W4YHD, told ARRL. He said, “Radio science experiments will also provide a valuable data set to encourage development of new radio technologies and modulation methods useful from VLF through HF.”

Floyd is the KL7ERP trustee, which, he says, is available “to demonstrate amateur radio to visiting scientists and students, to maintain contact with Alaska hams, and to provide visiting hams with an opportunity to operate from this unique Alaska location.”

For more than 25 years, UAF, the US Air Force, the US Navy, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have collaborated on ionospheric research at HAARP. As Air Force funding for research and development decreased, the Air Force transferred the research equipment to UAF under an Education Partnership Agreement (EPA). The UAF Geophysical Institute operates the facility under an agreement with the Air Force.