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Now Free of HAARP, US Air Force Still Wants to Tinker with the Ionosphere


A lot of radio amateurs bemoaning the recent spate of poor HF conditions would love to have a way to improve propagation — perhaps without even having to rely on the whims of the Sun. The US Department of Defense is thinking along the same lines. An August 9 article in New Scientist reports that the US Air Force is exploring a plan to bombard Earth’s upper atmosphere with ionized gas dispersed from CubeSats. According to the New Scientist article by David Hambling, the Air Force hopes to improve long-distance radio communication by “detonating plasma bombs” in the upper atmosphere, and the military branch has contracted with corporate and university researchers to figure out how to make this a reality.

The US Air Force is no stranger to ionospheric tinkering, having just last year transferred the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Project (HAARP) facility to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), which hopes to restart it next year. HAARP’s super-power RF in the high-frequency spectrum has been used stimulate the ionosphere and create a plasma cloud that could support HF radio propagation; it also has been used to study how the ionosphere functions.

The trick with using CubeSats to disperse ionizing gas above Earth is coming up with a plasma generator small enough to fit within a CubeSat and controlling how the plasma will disperse. New Scientist said General Sciences of Souderton, Pennsylvania, and Enig Associates of Bethesda, Maryland, are working with scientists at Drexel University and at the University of Maryland, respectively, on separate methods to produce plasma.

An August 9 article in Philly Voice by Michael Tannenbaum said the nearly $150,000 contract with General Sciences and Drexel University proposes to develop a plasma gas generation device “based on the use of highly exothermic condensed phase reactions yielding temperatures considerably higher than the boiling points of candidate metal elements with residual energy to maximize their vapor yield and, with high probability to enter associative ionization (chemi-ionization) reactions with atmospheric oxygen,” the research Abstract explains. The Abstract says researchers also will explore hardware development for controlled-release options. The benefit, according to the Abstract? “New ways of communication will become available to [the Department of Defense] with significant benefits to the defense of the country.”

For its part, Enig Associates has announced that its collaboration with the University of Maryland will lead to “an innovative and novel electrical approach, using in-house designed explosive-driven flux compression generators to convert explosive chemical energy into electromagnetic energy with very high current output and superb energy conversion efficiency.” The researchers will aim to design “an integrated generator device whose form factor fits inside an air-launched vehicle or sounding rocket.”

The New Scientist article said the better approach will be selected for a second phase, which will involve testing plasma generators in vacuum chambers and exploratory space flights.