In the middle of a snow-draped forest in Alaska, a long four-hour drive east from Anchorage, sits a cleared 30-acre field where 180 silver poles sprout from the ground and reach 22 meters into the air. During four nights this week the poles—actually interconnected radio antennae—will spring to life after three years of dormancy, and heat the highest wisps of our atmosphere directly above.
The antennas belong to the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), a former U.S. military facility near the hamlet of Gakona. The array will beam 2.1 megawatts of radio energy into the ionosphere—the region that starts at 100 kilometers above the ground, where solar photons and charged particles crash into Earth’s atmosphere. There the radio signals will excite electrons and turn them into waves of relatively hot ionized gas, or plasma, in a narrow slice of sky. The hope is to better understand activity that hampers satellites as well as some elusive features of radio wave physics.
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