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The US Air Force plans to 'plasma bomb' the sky to improve global radio reception

So crazy, it just might work.

DAVID NIELD
23 AUG 2016
 

The US Air Force is planning to drop plasma bombs of charged particles into the upper atmosphere, and all in the name of boosting radio reception down on Earth.

Small satellites called CubeSatsmeasuring just a few centimetres cubed, would be used for the project, and researchers in three separate teams are now figuring out how to get it done.

 

The biggest challenge is going to be fitting plasma generators onto the small orbiting CubeSats, and then controlling how the plasma is dispersed.

"These are really early-stage projects, representing the boundaries of plasma research into ionosphere modification," one of the researchers involved, John Kline from aerospace company Research Support Instruments, told David Hambling at New Scientist. "It may be an insurmountable challenge."

So why would this work?

What the Air Force is trying to do is boost the quantity of ions in the ionosphere, which starts at around 60 km (37 miles) up in Earth's atmosphere. This atmospheric layer is best known for producing the Northern Lights, but, more importantly for our global communications systems, it also reflects radio waves.

Radio waves that bounce back to the surface from the ionosphere can travel longer distances than radio waves just by themselves, and by adding ionised gas (plasma) to the atmosphere, the layer should, in theory, become better at reflecting radio communications around Earth's curvature.

This is also why radio signals sometimes work better at night, when the density of the ionosphere's charged particles is higher.

 

There's another potential benefit too: a denser ionosphere should offer better protection against solar storms, which can interfere with GPS networks and other communications.

In addition to Research Support Instruments, two other groups are now working on proposals for how to get this 'plasma bombing' to work, and the best proposal will be given funding to continue on to a second stage, involving lab tests and exploratory space flights.

One of the teams, from Drexel University, plans to make the plasma by using a controlled chemical reaction to heat a piece of metal beyond its boiling point, which will prompt it to react with atmospheric oxygen, and create ionised plasma.

Meanwhile, a group from the University of Maryland wants to detonate a small bomb, and use energy from the blast to create electrical energy. Different types of explosions can create different shapes of plasma clouds, according to the researchers.

While the whole 'plasma bomb' idea might sounds pretty out-there, this won't be the first time scientists have tried this kind of thing.

Back in the 1990s, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) in Alaska began using antennae on the ground to generate plasma and strengthen the ionosphere above, but the Air Force now wants a more modern solution.

There's still a long way to go before the technology is ready, but one day, radio networks could be vastly improved thanks to the small, plasma-firing satellites currently in development.

It's early days, sure, but we can't wait to see if these scientists can pull this off.

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