Earlier this year, China and Russia conducted a series of experiments that caused a disturbance high in the atmosphere, aimed at testing ionospheric manipulation technologies for military purposes, according to scientists involved in the experiments. Such experiments advance the understanding of how the ionosphere works, and might allow researchers to learn how to manipulate this crucial layer of the atmosphere to both help facilitate — and possibly disrupt — radio communications.
The series of five experiments were conducted over the summer of 2018, using high-powered microwaves transmitted from the Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility near the small town of Vasilsursk, 525 kilometers (325 miles) east of Moscow, Russia. Sura is a facility similar in function to the United States’ High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, better known as HAARP. Both facilities are designed to conduct research into Earth’s ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere between 60 kilometers (37 miles) and 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) in altitude, where the air molecules are ionized by incoming solar radiation. HAARP and Sura both utilize large antenna arrays to transmit high-power, high-frequency microwaves into the sky to energize the ionosphere above the facilities, with the data collected from the affected portions of the atmosphere being used to gain a better understanding of how the ionosphere works.
In one of the experiments, conducted on June 7, Sura’s microwave transmissions caused an atmospheric disturbance 500 kilometers (310 miles) above the facility, covering a 126,000 square kilometer (49,000 square mile) area, producing ten times the normal amount of ions that would usually be present at that time of day. Another experiment conducted five days later heated an area of the ionosphere more than 100°C (212°F) above normal.
Sura’s effects on the ionosphere were recorded by the Chinese electromagnetic surveillance satellite, Zhangheng-1, using its sensors in a rapid burst-mode, taking readings every half second in an effort to double its data resolution. The Scientists involved called the results of their experiments "satisfactory". "The detection of plasma disturbances… provides evidence for likely success of future related experiments," according to the study paper published in the Chinese scientific journal Earth and Planetary Physics.
Militaries around the world have been interested in the ionosphere and its properties ever since it was discovered to be able to refract radio waves back to the ground, even over the horizon. Being able to control the ionosphere’s properties could grant a military power more reliable over-the-horizon communication, or the ability to disrupt an adversary’s communication or access to their satellites. Toward this end, the Soviet Union built the Sura facility in 1981, with the US later following suit by building the HAARP array in 1993.
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