China and Russia quietly conducted experiments this year aimed at manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere.
The experiments involved heating the ionosphere, which is an upper, electrically charged layer of the planet’s atmosphere. At Russia’s Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility (SURA) in Vasilsursk, a powerful transmitter was used to pump radio energy into the ionized plasma that characterizes this layer, some 310 miles above the town.
Russia's SURA facility. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Once the ionosphere was stimulated, sensors aboard the China Seismo‐Electromagnetic Satellite (CSES) Zhangheng-1 recorded observations from orbit.
“There’s a lot of hype but we’ve done all of these things for years,” Dennis Papadopoulos, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, told Motherboard.
“What was done is nothing exciting, except for sending the message that Russia and China are interested [in this space],” Papadopoulos, who has conducted similar research in the US but was not part of these experiments, added.
Most of the tests did not cause plasma disturbances, the study notes.
However, one test on June 7 reportedly created an electric spike across 49,000 square miles, “with 10 times more negatively charged subatomic particles than surrounding regions,” according to the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.
The study claims another test increased the temperature of ionized gas in a select area by 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
The ionosphere sits roughly 50 to 400 miles above the ground—where gases are stimulated by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation to form electrically charged ions. Responsible for bouncing radio waves from the Earth’s surface, the ionosphere is crucial to many modes of communication which can be hampered by things such as space weather. The ionosphere is also home to brilliant auroras, caused by charged particles interacting with the planet’s magnetic field lines.
Scientists have long been interested in novel technologies made possible by tampering with the ionosphere, specifically in the military, space, and communications industries.
It’s possible to block communications, for example, by increasing the density of plasma or by creating structures that scatter radio waves, Papadopoulos said. The Air Force even wanted to boost the range of radio signals by detonating “plasma bombs” from micro satellites.
Last year, scientists in the US semi-successfully tried to produce an artificial aurora for the purpose of studying the natural phenomenon.
And while early reports of China and Russia’s collaboration have skewed alarmist, Papadopoulos warned against giving “too much hype to the results.” Adding that in 2014, US researchers were planning a joint study with Russian and Ukrainian scientists that “fell through” due to Russia-Ukraine relations.
Antenna grid at Alaska's HAARP. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Several countries have built specialized facilities for modifying the ionosphere—a field of study with potential military and space applications.
Russia’s SURA was commissioned in 1981 with funding from the Soviet Defense Department. It’s currently operated by the Radiophysical Research Institute (NIRFI) based in Nizhny Novgorod.
In the US, the even more powerful High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) was established in 1993 by the Air Force, Navy, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The 33 acre facility located near Fairbanks, Alaska maintains 180 radio antennas for inundating the ionosphere with high-frequency radio waves, and was transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks after the program was shut down in 2015. HAARP has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories ranging from weather and mind control—pushing its operators to hold an open house in 2016 just to dispel false rumors.
Norway is also home to an ionospheric heater called EISCAT in Ramfjordmoen near Tromsø.
“We are not playing God,” a scientist reportedly involved with the Chinese and Russian experiment told the Post anonymously on Monday. “We are not the only country teaming up with the Russians. Other countries have done similar things.”