Newly Minted Ham Hopes His Celestial Concert is Not HAARP’S Final Opus
Not long before the US Air Force notified Congress in May that it planned to dismantle the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program — better known as HAARP — a researcher at the unique and controversial facility near Gakona, Alaska, briefly turned its ultra-high power HF transmitter into a celestial musical instrument. That “music of the spheres” could turn out to be HAARP’s swan song.
The Air Force has told lawmakers that keeping HAARP in operation would not be a good use of its research funds. In April, when he orchestrated HAARP’s turn on the musical stage, Chris Fallen, now KL3WX — he got his Technician ticket on May 5 — was training as a HAARP operator on the outside chance that his alma mater, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), might take over the sprawling plant. As a UAF grad student, Fallen wrote his thesis on HAARP, inspired by a 2005 visit to a HAARP open house. Now a UAF assistant professor of space engineering, Fallen is distressed that he might not be able to continue his investigations. But don’t look for Maestro Fallen to take the HAARP Farewell Tour on the road just yet.
As NPR’s “All Things Considered” news magazine reported on June 10, Fallen used HAARP’s 3 GW transmitter and 30-acre antenna farm in April to create music that literally came from above. Employing what is known as the Luxembourg Effect, in which the ionosphere serves as a heavenly mixing device for radio signals on different frequencies, Fallen transmitted separate pieces of music directly skyward from HAARP. In his report, “Bye-Bye To The Home Of A Favorite Internet Conspiracy Theory,” NPR’s Geoff Brumfield said the Luxembourg Effect blended the different pieces together. As Fallen explained, “These two different musical performances were essentially mixed in space.”
The result was an otherworldly “New Age” type concerto reminiscent of a glass harp composition, no pun intended. Students visiting UAF composed two “complementary pieces” of music for the experiment, according to a report in The Anchorage Press. Fallen explained on NPR that he transmitted one of the pieces at 3.25 MHz, the other at 4.25 MHz. The ionosphere reflected the resulting “mix tape” of sorts back to Earth for the listening pleasure of Fallen and his, uhhh, co-conspirators.
Appointment with Wrecking Ball on Hold
The Air Force told Congress that it intended to call in the wrecking ball as early as this summer, but things now are in limbo. Built in 1990 at a cost of nearly $300 million, HAARP’s immediate trajectory toward the scrap heap has been paused, while the Air Force and UAF attempt to work out a deal to have the university take over HAARP — lock, stock, and conspiracy theories.
According to NPR affiliate KUAC, UAF Geophysical Institute Director Bob McCoy has confirmed that the school has been “pursuing the possibility of taking over HAARP,” although discussions are still underway. In the meantime, KUAC said, researchers from around the world have signed petitions and letters of support to keep HAARP running. KUAC reported that Alaska Sen Lisa Murkowski forwarded the expressions of support to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Murkowski’s spokesman emphasized that HAARP’s future hinges on funding; it would cost on the order of $5 million a year to keep HAARP going.
If the end really is near, though, it’s been coming for a while now. Last July HAARP’s Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) program manager James Keeney told ARRL that the facility had been shut down while the search for a new prime contractor was underway. Its budget essentially zeroed out, HAARP subsequently reopened to conduct some research campaigns under government contract.
Larry Ledlow, N1TX, of Fairbanks, Alaska, told ARRL in 2013 that HAARP’s ionosonde and riometer data have been “invaluable, especially being more or less local, to understand current conditions in the high latitudes.” He said data from other sites “simply do not accurately reflect the unique propagation we endure here.” Eric Nichols, KL7AJ, author of Radio Science for the Radio Amateur and articles in QST — said the loss of HAARP would be “a great loss to interior Alaska hams and many others.”
Fallen wholeheartedly echoed those sentiments. “Professionally speaking, the shutdown of HAARP [would be] very disappointing and damaging to fundamental upper-atmosphere and radio sciences in the immediate and long terms,” he told ARRL on June 18. Losing HAARP, he said, would also mean doing away with the array of other on-site instruments, such as a UHF radar, magnetometers, a seismometer, classic and imaging riometers, ionosonde, all-sky cameras, and GPS Total Electron Content (TEC) receivers. Data from many of those instruments is collected continuously and had been made available to anybody in near real time on HAARP’s website, now down for about a year while HAARP’s fate remains in flux.
“Losing HAARP also means losing a tremendous — but underutilized — outreach and education resource,” Fallen added. “It [has been] very effective at stimulating interest in visiting students of many disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” — known as “STEM” in education circles. It even inspired Fallen to get his ham ticket.
Hams and HAARP
The ultra-high power facility long has intrigued hams. In 1997, HAARP transmitted test signals on HF (3.4 MHz and 6.99 MHz) and solicited reports from hams and short-wave listeners in the “Lower 48” to determine how well the HAARP transmissions could be heard to the south. In 2007 HAARP succeeded in bouncing a 40 meter signal off the moon. Early last year, HAARP scientists successfully produced a sustained high-density plasma cloud in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Fallen said a couple of the scientists with him on site in April were hams, and conversations during lulls in their research turned toward vintage radio gear. “News about the future of HAARP from AFRL was increasingly grim, and, as I have been working with the instruments there for several years, I started to pursue a ham license to continue working with radio in some capacity, particularly the HF bands, where the ionosphere plays an important role.” He is already preparing to upgrade to General.
Room for Hope
Fallen told ARRL that he remains optimistic that HAARP will support additional research campaigns in the short term, but “nothing would surprise me at this point.” As he sees it, HAARP’s future will in part depend on “the creativity of the atmospheric science and radio communities for developing new operational and funding models.”
An extreme level of controversy continues to rage on the Internet and on talk radio regarding HAARP’s purported abilities to change the weather, cause earthquakes, control minds, and even destroy spacecraft. Given that atmosphere, if and when HAARP meets its end, it may simply go the way of Elvis — with evidence of its existence claimed well after the site has been leveled.
For now, though, HAARP has not “left the building.” Perhaps an encore is in the offing.