Source: Darpa Budget Estimates
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.