Bubbles of Plasma in Space May Have Cost U.S. Lives in Afghanistan

New analysis reveals that unusual space weather may have scrambled radio signals and sent a rescue mission awry

chinook helicopter afghanistan
Chad Hunt/Corbis

The jagged mountain passes of Afghanistan are notorious for stymying radio communications and making already dangerous military operations more risky. But an unexpected source of interference—plasma bubbles in space—may have made one of the first major battles in the War in Afghanistan more deadly.

Research published in Space Weather reveals that these wispy clouds of electrically charged gas may have scrambled radio waves in the region surrounding the snow-covered mountain Takur Ghar during March 2002. Because of this interference, a team of U.S. Army Rangers on a mission to rescue stranded Navy SEALS never got messages warning them away from al-Qaeda forces. Their MH-47E Chinook helicopter was shot down, and a 17-hour firefight ensued. Seven Rangers were killed.

During the day, the sun’s radiation blasts electrons from molecules and atoms and creates a layer of charged particles—plasma that fills the upper atmosphere. When that layer is stable, radio waves can pass though without incident. But at night, the charged particles combine and become neutral. "This recombination happens faster at lower altitudes, making the plasma there less dense, so that it bubbles up through the denser plasma above, like air bubbles rising through water," explains a press release from the American Geophysical Union.

Those bubbles pop up between 53 and 370 miles above the earth, reports David Shultz in Science news story.

The 2002 battle, called Operation Anaconda, took place during peak bubble season in Afghanistan. A fortuitous pass over the region by a specialized NASA satellite helped researchers figure out that a plasma bubble had formed between the communications satellites and the Takur Ghar region. 

The techniques used to analyze the satellite a decade later are new; they could help predict bubbles and prevent future problems with space weather communications black-outs.