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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
There are many ways we can modify our atmosphere but microwave manipulation produces some of the most extreme results.
China and Russia have jointly announced that they modified an important layer of the atmosphere above Europe in order to test a controversial new military technology that in June last year increased temperatures in the atmosphere by over 100 degrees Celsius, and created powerful electromagnetic electric spikes. In short – a significant atmospheric experiment with some significant implications for Europe and the established military order.
The modified zone which was more than 500km (310 miles) high over Vasilsursk, a small Russian town in eastern Europe, experienced an electric spike with 10 times more negatively charged subatomic particles than the surrounding regions at the same time that the temperature of the thin, ionised gas in the upper atmosphere increased by more than 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit).
The particles, or electrons, used in the experiment were pumped into the sky by Sura, a Russian “atmospheric heating facility” in Vasilsursk that was built by the former Soviet Union’s military during the Cold War.
During the experiment the Sura base, whose peak power for the high frequency radio waves could reach 260 megawatts, enough to light a small city, fired up an array of high power antennas and injected a large amount of microwaves into the high atmosphere while the Zhangheng-1, a Chinese electromagnetic surveillance satellite, was used to collect the data from orbit.
The microwave particle injection and simultaneous satellite fly by required immense levels of coordination in order to measure the resulting atmospheric measurements, and when Zhangheng-1 approached the target zone, for instance, the sensors would switch to burst mode to analyse the atmospheric samples every half a second, much faster than usual, in order to increase data resolution.
The results according to the research team were “satisfactory”, and details of the experiment were published in the Chinese journal Earth and Planetary Physics.
“The detection of plasma disturbances provides evidence for likely success of future related experiments,” the researchers said.
Professor Guo Lixin, dean of the school of physics and optoelectronic engineering at Xidian University in Xian and a leading scientist on ionosphere manipulation technology in China, also said that the joint experimentation was extremely unusual.
“Such international cooperation is very rare for China,” said Guo, who was not involved in the experiment, because “the technology involved is too sensitive.”
The Sun and cosmic rays produce a large amount of free flying, positively charged atoms known as ions at altitudes from 75km to 1,000km in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the layer, or Ionosphere, reflects radio waves like a mirror which allows radio signals to bounce long distances for communication purposes. This is why various militaries around the world have been in a race to control the ionosphere for decades.
The Sura base in Vasilsursk is believed to be the world’s first large scale facility that was built specifically for the purpose of modifying this layer. Up and running in 1981, it enabled Soviet scientists to manipulate the sky as an instrument for military operations, including submarine communication. High energy microwaves can pluck the electromagnetic field in ionosphere like fingers playing a harp which can produce very low frequency radio signals that can penetrate the ground or water, sometimes to depths of more than 100 metres (328 feet) in the ocean, which made it a possible communication method for submarines.
Changing the ionosphere over enemy territory can also disrupt or cut off their communication with satellites, and when the US learned of Russia’s previous experiments they built a much larger facility to conduct similar tests. Known as the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP, the US experiment was based in Gakona, Alaska, in the 1990s with funding from the US military and their bleeding edge research arm the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Furthermore the HAARP facility could generate a maximum 1 Gigawatt of power, nearly four times that of Sura.
China is now building an even larger and more advanced atmospheric experimentation facility in Sanya, Hainan, with capability to manipulate the ionosphere over the entire South China Sea, according to an earlier report by the South China Morning Post, which could one day be leveraged to interfere with US military communications in the area as the two increasingly butt heads over the areas territorial rights.
There have also been concerns that such facilities could also be used to engineer the climate and modify weather, something China spent $320million on recently to do in its North West province to boost rainfall, and even create natural disasters, including hurricanes, cyclones and earthquakes. And elsewhere critics say that the ultra-low frequency waves generated by these powerful facilities could even affect the operation of human brains. But Dr Wang Yalu, an associate researcher with the China Earthquake Administration who took part in the study dismissed such theories.
“We are just doing pure scientific research. If there is anything else involved, I am not informed about this,” she said in an interview.
The earthquake administration was involved because the Zhangheng-1, launched in February, was the first Chinese satellite capable of picking up precursory signals linked to earthquakes. It is operated by the Chinese military and has served both civilian and defence uses.
In the China-Russian experiment, researchers found that even with a small power output of 30MW, the radio beam could create a large abnormal zone in the atmosphere. But they also found that the effects dropped sharply after sunrise, as the man made interference easily “became lost in the noise created by sunlight.”
“We are not playing God. We are not the only country teaming up with the Russians. Other countries have done similar things,” said another researcher who was involved in the project and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In the past the Sura facility has also conducted joint research with France and the US, according to papers published in academic journals, and the National Centre for Space Studies, a French government agency under the supervision of the ministries of defence and research, has deployed the micro satellite Demeter to monitor Sura’s radio emissions.
Meanwhile the Defence Meteorological Satellite Programme run by the US Department of Defence also contributed fly by data in several heating experiments conducted at the Russian site before 2012. The countries were willing to collaborate in part because many scientific and technical problems remain to be solved, the Chinese researcher said.
For example, though there is general consensus that human disturbances can cause the irregularities, how they happened and why remains a subject of debate, with different research teams providing varied explanations.
Professor Gong Shuhong, a military communication technology researcher at Xidian University, formerly of the Radio School of the Central Military Committee, said he had been closely following the Russia-China heating experiment.
“The energy emitted was too low to trigger a global environmental event,” he said. “Human influence is still very small compared to the power of Mother Nature. But the impact to a small region is possible.”
But, as critics are quick to note, according to the infamous Chaos Theory, a butterfly flapping its wings might be amplified in a sophisticated weather system and cause a storm in a distant location several weeks later.
“Such studies must strictly follow ethical guidelines,” Gong said. “Whatever they do, it must not cause harm to the people living on this planet.”