Hacking the Ionosphere, for Science

Imagine what it must have been like for the first human to witness an aurora. It took a while for our species to migrate from its equatorial birthplace to latitudes where auroras are common, so it was a fairly recent event geologically speaking. Still, that first time seeing the shimmers and ribbons playing across a sky yet to be marred by light pollution must have been terrifying and thrilling, and like other displays of nature’s power, it probably fueled stories of gods and demons. The myths and legends born from ignorance of what an aurora actually represents seem quaint to most of us, but it was as good a model as our ancestors needed to explain the world around them.

Our understanding of auroras needs to be a lot deeper, though, because we now know that they are not only a beautiful atmospheric phenomenon but also a critical component in the colossal electromagnetic system formed by our planet and our star. Understanding how it works is key to everything from long-distance communication to keeping satellites in orbit to long-term weather predictions.

But how exactly does one study an aurora? Something that’s so out of reach and so evanescent seems like it would be hard to study. While it’s not exactly easy science to do, it is possible to directly study auroras, and it involves some interesting technology that actually changes them, somehow making the nocturnal light show even more beautiful.

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Oliver Heaviside: Rags to Recognition, to Madness

Like any complex topic, electromagnetic theory has its own vocabulary. When speaking about dielectrics we may refer to their permittivity, and discussions on magnetic circuits might find terms like reluctance and inductance bandied about. At a more practical level, a ham radio operator might discuss the impedance of the coaxial cable used to send signals to an antenna that will then be bounced off the ionosphere for long-range communications.

It’s everyday stuff to most of us, but none of this vocabulary would exist if it hadn’t been for Oliver Heaviside, the brilliant but challenging self-taught British electrical engineer and researcher. He coined all these terms and many more in his life-long quest to understand the mysteries of the electromagnetic world, and gave us much of the theoretical basis for telecommunications.

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Radio Apocalypse: The GWEN System

Recent developments on the world political stage have brought the destructive potential of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) to the fore, and people seem to have internalized the threat posed by a single thermonuclear weapon. It’s common knowledge that one bomb deployed at a high enough altitude can cause a rapid and powerful pulse of electrical and magnetic fields capable of destroying everything electrical on the ground below, sending civilization back to the 1800s in the blink of an eye.

Things are rarely as simple as the media portray, of course, and this is especially true when a phenomenon with complex physics is involved. But even in the early days of the Atomic Age, the destructive potential of EMP was understood, and allowances for it were made in designing strategic systems. Nowhere else was EMP more of a threat than to the complex web of communication systems linking far-flung strategic assets with central command and control apparatus. In the United States, one of the many hardened communications networks was dubbed the Groundwave Emergency Network, or GWEN, and the story of its fairly rapid rise and fall is an interesting case study in how nations mount technical responses to threats, both real and perceived. Continue reading “Radio Apocalypse: The GWEN System”

Sferics, Whistlers, and the Dawn Chorus: Listening to Earth Music on VLF

We live in an electromagnetic soup, bombarded by wavelengths from DC to daylight and beyond. A lot of it is of our own making, especially further up the spectrum where wavelengths are short enough for the bandwidth needed for things like WiFi and cell phones. But long before humans figured out how to make their own electromagnetic ripples, the Earth was singing songs at the low end of the spectrum. The very low frequency (VLF) band abounds with interesting natural emissions, and listening to these Earth sounds can be quite a treat.

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Sorry US; Europeans Listen to Space with GRAVES

In Europe, the GRAVES radar station beams a signal on 143.050 MHz almost straight up to detect and track satellites and space junk. That means you will generally not hear any signal from the station. However, [DK8OK] shows how you can–if you are in Europe–listen for reflections from the powerful radar. The reflections can come from airplanes, meteors, or spacecraft. You can see a video from [way1888] showing the result of the recent Perseid meteor shower.

Using a software-defined radio receiver, [DK8OK] tunes slightly off frequency and waits for reflections to appear in the waterfall. In addition to observing the signal, it is possible to process the audio to create more details.

Why is there a giant vertical radar transmitter in the middle of France? The transmitter uses a phased array to send a signal over a 45-degree swath of the sky at a time. It makes six total steps every 19.2 seconds. A receiver several hundred miles away listens for reflections.

Even the moon reflects the signal when it is in the radar’s path. If you are interested in a moon bounce, you may be able to build a station to hear the reflections without being in Europe.

Of course, if you can transmit yourself, you might want to bounce your own signal off airplanes. If you want to do it old school, you could emulate [Zoltán Bay].

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40-Acre HAARP Rides Again, And They Want You To Listen

News comes to us this week that the famous HAARP antenna array is to be brought back into service for experiments by the University of Alaska. Built in the 1990s for the US Air Force’s High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, the array is a 40-acre site containing a phased array of 180 HF antennas and their associated high power transmitters. Its purpose it to  conduct research on charged particles in the upper atmosphere, but that hasn’t stopped an array of bizarre conspiracy theories being built around its existence.

The Air Force gave up the site to the university a few years ago, and it is their work that is about to recommence. They will be looking at the effects of charged particles on satellite-to-ground communications, as well as over-the-horizon communications and visible observations of the resulting airglow. If you live in Alaska you may be able to see the experiments in your skies, but residents elsewhere should be able to follow them with an HF radio. It’s even reported that they are seeking reports from SWLs (Short Wave Listeners). Frequencies and times will be announced on the @UAFGI Twitter account. Perhaps canny radio amateurs will join in the fun, after all it’s not often that the exact time and place of an aurora is known in advance.

Tinfoil hat wearers will no doubt have many entertaining things to say about this event, but for the rest of us it’s an opportunity for a grandstand seat on some cutting-edge atmospheric research. We’ve reported in the past on another piece of upper atmosphere research, a plan to seed it with plasma from cubesats, and for those of you that follow our Retrotechtacular series we’ve also featured a vintage look at over-the-horizon radar.

HAARP antenna array picture: Michael Kleiman, US Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Lost Moon Found: The Satellite That Came Back to Life

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a tumultuous time in world history. The Cold War between the East and the West was in full-swing, driving the new fields of nuclear weapons and space exploration and giving the period its dual monikers of “Atomic Age” and “Space Age.”

Changes in these fields often went hand in glove, with developments in one requiring responses in the other. In 1958, the US conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific that effectively destroyed the ionosphere over the test site and shut down high-frequency communications to places like Hawaii and New Zealand. The strategic implications of this were clear, and the US began looking for ways for the military to reduce its reliance on HF communications and ionospheric skip by using space-based assets to communicate at much higher frequencies.

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