About nine hours east of Moscow, where the Sura River meets the Volga, there’s an ex-Soviet laboratory pumping high-frequency radio waves into the upper atmosphere.
As the waves reach the ionosphere, they disrupt it in mysterious and unexplained ways, forming artificial plasma ducts and heating the ions and electrons that form this atmospheric region.
It sounds like the opening to an apocalyptic blockbuster, but experiments like these aren’t unusual. Northeast of Anchorage, Alaska, the US has its own facility, the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program or HAARP. These days, the research station belongs to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but for nearly a quarter of a century it was the property of the US Air Force and Navy, bombarding the atmosphere with radio waves in the search for new or improved military applications.
This is because the ionosphere plays an important role in communication. Ionized particles reflect radio waves sent from Earth and can disrupt signals from satellites – control the ionosphere, and you can potentially cut off your enemies’ access to information. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it’s been a priority for military forces – as well as the source of quite a few conspiracy theories – around the world.
So the news that Russian and Chinese scientists have been collaborating on a project to do just that has understandably turned some heads. As reported by the South China Morning Post, five experiments were carried out in the Russian skies over a period of 11 days in June this year, sending high-frequency waves into the atmosphere with enough power to light a small city.
“We are not playing God,” one researcher promised the Post. “We are not the only country teaming up with the Russians. Other countries have done similar things.”
In a paper published this month in the journal Earth and Planetary Physics, researchers from the Institute of Earthquake Forecasting in Beijing and the Russian Radiophysical Research Institute described how the in-orbit China Seismo‐Electromagnetic Satellite (CSES) was directed to monitor a series of high-frequency radio waves sent into the ionosphere from the Russian Sura research lab.
The paper describes one experiment that increased the temperature in the upper atmosphere by more than 100°C (180°F), while the Post reports that another caused a physical disturbance as large as 126,000 square kilometers (49,000 miles).
The main finding of the research, however, is rather curious. The CSES satellite, specially designed for iono-magnetospheric observations, was actually unable to detect the radio waves sent from Sura – but only during the day. But away from the noise of sunlight, night-time experiments could be monitored easily, at relatively low power.
Despite the alarming headlines, it’s important to remember that this kind of undertaking is subject to strict guidelines.
“Such studies must strictly follow ethical guidelines,” military communication technology researcher Gong Shuhong explained to the Post. “Whatever they do, it must not cause harm to the people living on this planet.”
And although the unusual level of cooperation between the two governments may have some worried about malicious agents jamming communication signals, the researchers stress that the experiments were carried out in the name of science alone.
“We are just doing pure scientific research,” study author Wang Yalu told the Post. “If there is anything else involved, I am not informed about this.”