Why Scientists Are Sending Radio Signals to the Moon and Jupiter

Researchers conducted wide-ranging experiments at Alaska’s HAARP facility, known for atmospheric research and conspiracy theories

The HAARP facility
HAARP's antennas Courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks

Researchers in Alaska have blasted a beam of radio signals some 374 million miles into space—all the way to Jupiter. Though the experiment sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, it’s just a way for scientists to test whether Earth-based radio transmitters can study electrically charged particles in the atmospheres of other planets, which they believe are brimming with useful information.

On Earth, this charged atmospheric region, called the ionosphere, is located roughly 50 to 400 miles above the planet’s surface, and scientists already know a lot about it. The ionospheres of other planets, however, remain mostly mysterious.

The Jupiter study is one of 13 far-out experiments that scientists recently completed at a remote, sprawling antenna field in southern Alaska. The High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility, run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), consists of 180 high-frequency, 72-foot-tall antennas spread across 33 acres in Gakona, Alaska, roughly 200 miles northeast of Anchorage.

Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded the facility a five-year, $9.3 million grant to establish the Subauroral Geophysical Observatory to study a wide array of atmospheric phenomena—both here on Earth and beyond. From October 19 to October 28, scientists at the facility completed its “largest and most diverse” set of experiments to date, says Jessica Matthews, HAARP’s program manager, in a statement.

People walking under antennas
Scientists use HAARP's antennas to study Earth's ionosphere and other phenomena. Courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks

One study, called “Moon Bounce,” involved sending a radio signal to the moon, then waiting for pings back at observatories in California and New Mexico. Scientists hope that in the future, similar signals bounced off of potentially destructive asteroids approaching Earth could help determine their composition and reveal how to deal with them.

Another group of scientists used the facility’s antennas to investigate an unusual aurora-like polar light known as “STEVE,” which stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. The light typically appears white or mauve in color and occurs at lower latitudes than aurorae, such as the Northern Lights. Scientists hope the work will reveal whether or not hot electrons cause this still-mysterious phenomenon.

The experiments weren’t only about science. Art also took center stage with a project called “Ghosts in the Air Glow,” which involved beaming images, sounds, videos and spoken words to Earth’s ionosphere. With the undertaking, Canadian artist Amanda Dawn Christie wanted to “play with the liminal boundaries of Earth's atmosphere and outer space,” per the project’s website. People around the world operating amateur radios will be able to pick up the signals and translate them into low-resolution TV images.

“It’s a collaborative work between the artist and the amateur radio community to make the artwork happen,” says Evans Callis, who leads research support services at HAARP, to KUAC’s Dan Bross.

HAARP research facility
Part of the HAARP research facility in Gakona, Alaska Courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks

The United States Air Force and the United States Navy initially developed the HAARP facility in the early 1990s to study the ionosphere, which the Sun is constantly bombarding with energy and radiation. As such, solar weather greatly influences the ionosphere, which is home to an array of satellites used for everything from GPS to communication. Military leaders believed that if they could understand the ionosphere better, they could potentially improve surveillance, navigation and communication systems on Earth.

HAARP gave rise to a variety of conspiracy theories about its true purpose, ranging from mind control to causing devastating natural disasters. At one point, military leaders said they no longer wanted to run the facility and planned to destroy it. But, in 2015, they instead transferred it to UAF so that research could continue.

Some of those HAARP conspiracy theories are still making the rounds today on social media platforms such as Instagram, where one user recently posted a video claiming the facility can “create hurricanes.” Scientists dispute these—after all, the ionosphere is in the upper atmosphere, and weather is created in the lower atmosphere.

“There is no credible mechanism by which HAARP can modify the weather or the neutral atmosphere in any detectable way,” says Keith Groves, associate director of the Institute for Scientific Research at Boston College, to USA Today’s Eleanor McCrary. “Claims of this type are completely unfounded. They are sensational, but neither serious nor scientific.”

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