Strange New Air Force Facility Energizes Ionosphere, Fans Conspiracy Flames

Todd Pedersen had to hustle—the sky was scheduled to start glowing soon, and he didn't want to miss it. It was just before sunset, a cold February evening in deep-woods Alaska, and the broad-shouldered US Air Force physicist was scrambling across the snow in his orange down parka and fur-lined bomber hat. Grabbing cables and electronics, he rushed to assemble a jury-rigged telescope atop a crude wooden platform.

The rig wasn't much, just a pair of high-sensitivity cameras packed into a dorm-room refrigerator and pointed at a curved mirror reflecting a panoramic view of the sky. Pedersen had hoped to monitor the camera feed from a relatively warm bunkhouse nearby. But powdery snow two feet deep made it difficult to string cables back to the building.

As darkness closed in, Pedersen tried to get the second imager working—with no luck—and the first one began snapping pictures. A few minutes before seven, throbbing arcs of green and red light began to form on his monitor, eventually coalescing into an egg shape. Other shards of light shimmered, gathered into a jagged ring, and spun around the oval center. "This is really good stuff," Pedersen cooed. This wasn't just another aurora borealis triggered by solar winds; this one Pedersen made himself. He did it with the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (Haarp): a $250 million facility with a 30-acre array of antennas capable of spewing 3.6 megawatts of energy into the mysterious plasma of the ionosphere.

Bringing Haarp to fruition was, well, complicated. A group of scientists had to cozy up to a US senator, cut deals with an oil company, and convince the Pentagon that the project might revolutionize war. Oh, and along the way they sparked enough conspiracy theories to make the place sound like an arctic Area 51.

But the shocking thing about Haarp isn't that it's a boondoggle (it's actually pretty worthwhile) or that it was spawned by a military-industrial-petrochemical-political complex (a hallowed government tradition). It's that, all too often, this is the way big science gets done in the US. Navigating the corridors of money and power is simply what scientists have to do.

In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi received a simple radio signal sent from across the Atlantic Ocean—dot-dot-dot, again and again, the letter S repeated in Morse code. Leading scientists of the day had said such a transmission was impossible: Earth's surface is curved, and radio waves travel in straight lines. The dots should have shot out into space. Instead, they traveled from Cornwall, England, to a 500-foot antenna Marconi hung from a kite in Newfoundland. A previously unknown, electromagnetically charged layer of the atmosphere was reflecting the signal back down to earth.

At any given moment, the sun is bombarding our planet with 170 billion megawatts of ultraviolet, x-ray, and other radiation. Those waves collide with atoms of air—nitrogen, oxygen, and so on—stripping away electrons like spring rain eroding a snowbank. The result: positively charged ions drifting free. At high altitudes, those ions are far enough apart that it can take hours for them to bind with a free electron. Called the ionosphere, these undulating bands of charged particles stretch from 50 to 500 miles above the earth—too high for weather balloons and, in large part, too low for satellites. Researchers who study it jokingly call it the ignorosphere.

For decades, researchers who wanted to bother with the ignorosphere did what Marconi had done—they built an emitter, pointed it straight up, and watched to see what would happen next. Those researchers learned that the ionosphere contains plasma, charged gas clouds that are more common in stars than on Earth. They saw that regions of the ionosphere expand and contract depending on their position over the planet, the tilt of Earth toward the sun, and the time of day. (At night, for instance, one of the ionosphere's layers disappears entirely.)

But by the 1980s, US atmospheric radio science had dead-ended. "We had become a very small field, and we wanted to try to revive it," says Konstant Papadopoulos, a plasma and space physicist at the University of Maryland. "We needed a modern facility."

Papadopoulos, now a white-haired, deeply tanned 70-year-old who goes by the name Dennis, had worked on and off with the government since he left his native Athens in the 1960s. He knew his way around the federal science-funding machine. Many of his fellow ionospherists had similar experience swaying the folks with fat wallets. So this loose band of radio scientists began a campaign of persuasion in support of a new research center. "We'll sell it," Papadopoulos remembers thinking. "We'll sell it in good faith, but we'll sell it."

One of the first ideas came mid-decade from Bernard Eastlund, a physicist working for oil-and-gas conglomerate Atlantic Richfield. Arco had the rights to trillions of cubic feet of natural gas under Alaska's North Slope. The problem had always been how to get that gas to the port at Valdez. Eastlund had a better idea: Use the gas onsite to fuel a giant ionospheric heater. Such a facility, he wrote in a series of patents, could fry Soviet missiles in midflight or maybe even nudge cyclones and other extreme weather toward enemies. That's right: weaponized hurricanes.

Arco's executives presented the idea to Simon Ramo, one of the godfathers of the US intercontinental ballistic missile program. Ramo passed it on to the under secretary of defense, who in turn gave it to the Pentagon's advanced research arm, Darpa, and the DOD's secretive science advisory board, code-named Jason. Tony Tether, director of Darpa's strategic technology office, gave Arco a contract to conduct a feasibility study. Arco brought on board none other than Dennis Papadopoulos as a consultant.

Papadopoulos wasn't very impressed. Eastlund's tricks wouldn't work even if the site were in the right place along Earth's magnetic field—which it wasn't. But the ad hoc coalition of radio scientists did like the idea of setting up a new heater in Alaska. In those upper latitudes, the ionosphere intersects with Earth's magnetic field and becomes scientifically interesting.

Luckily, the senior senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, enjoyed a reputation for inserting projects into the federal budget to benefit his home state, most notoriously a $223 million bridge from the town of Ketchikan to, well, not much of anyplace. In 1988, the researchers sat down with Stevens and assured him that an ionospheric heater would be a bona fide scientific marvel and a guaranteed job creator, and it could be built for a mere $30 million. "He provided some congressional money, some pork money," Papadopoulos says. "It was much less than the bridge to nowhere." Just like that, the Pentagon had $10 million for ionospheric heater research.

Now the scientists had some startup cash, but they also needed hardware—and for that, they had to enlist the military. In a series of meetings in the winter of 1989-90, the field's leading lights, including Papadopoulos, pitched the Navy and the Air Force. Haarp, they asserted, could lead to "significant operational capabilities." They'd build a giant phased antenna array that would aim a finely tuned beam of high- frequency radio waves into the sky. The beam would excite electrons in the ionosphere, altering that spot's conductivity and inducing it to emit its own extremely low frequency waves, which could theoretically penetrate the earth's surface to reveal hidden bunkers or be used to contact deeply submerged submarines.

That last app caught the military's attention. Communicating with subs thousands of miles away, under thousands of feet of ocean, requires ultralow frequencies, and that requires whomping-big antennas. To do it, the Navy had built an array in the upper Midwest that transmits its signal through bedrock, but its construction required razing 84 miles' worth of hundred-foot-wide path through wilderness, including a national forest. It drove local environmentalists crazy. But who would protest an ephemeral antenna in the sky?

Of course, the scientists said, you'd need a brand-new, state-of-the-art ionospheric heater to see if any of this was even feasible. The Pentagon somewhat reluctantly went for it—and began using Stevens' earmarked cash to fund the appropriate studies.