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In late September, Christopher Fallen and technicians at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) near Gakona, Alaska, switched on a giant array of 180 antennas. They were hoping to produce radio-induced airglow, also known as artificial aurora, as a way to better understand the mechanics of natural aurora.
Such airglow would be difficult to see with the naked eye, so Fallen had set up two low-light video cameras to capture it. And he tweeted his plans, in the off chance that someone else might catch a glimpse. After all, some of the most impressive artificial aurora displays to date have been produced at HAARP.
But the sky was too cloudy. And by the time it was dark enough, the ionosphere had deteriorated too much, with relatively few electrons per cubic centimeter. Fallen wasn’t able to generate any airglow during four days of experiments.
But not all was lost. He had also embedded images into the powerful radio wave that HAARP uses to heat a patch of the ionosphere, and alerted amateur radio enthusiasts through Twitter. As the experiment ran, his feed began to light up with tweets from listeners who were sending the images back to him.
They had used slow-scan TV, which reproduces images based on patterns in audio signals, to decode the images. Fallen, an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, had transmitted two UAF logos, a cat photo, and a QR code granting the recipient 0.001 Bitcoin.
Messages returned from Pueblo, Colo., and Victoria, British Columbia. The resolution wasn’t high enough for anyone to claim the Bitcoin, but the cat was easy enough to make out. Given that HAARP’s antennas point directly up at the sky instead of out toward the horizon, Fallen was pleased with the results. “As powerful as HAARP is, it’s just a big radio,” he says.
It’s actually a giant phased array radio transmitter capable of sending 3.6 megawatts of energy into the ionosphere. Running an experiment there costs about US $5,000 and burns 600 gallons (roughly 2300 liters) of fuel per hour.
Jeff Dumps, an amateur radio enthusiast from Fairbanks, recently paid $1,200 to run a 15-minute experiment on HAARP. He was trying to simulate the Luxembourg effect, or cross-modulation that can occur between two signals as they richochet through the atmosphere. To do so, he transmitted the preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence and his own guitar rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Dumps has visited HAARP with Fallen, and marvels at its size. “The wind kind of gusts through the antenna array so you get this weird howling,” he says. “It’s kind of ominous.”
The facility was designed to send high-frequency radio waves into the ionosphere, where radiation from the sun and distant galaxies mixes with the Earth’s atmosphere and can knock electrons out of whack. These electrons collide with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, and prompt those molecules to release photons that produce the red and green light seen in aurora.
The mechanisms by which space radiation disrupts these electrons is not well understood. In his experiment, Fallen had wanted to cycle through three frequencies—2.8 megahertz, 2.82 MHz, and 2.84 MHz—to see which produced the most vivid fake aurora. This, he thought, might provide a clue to the underlying physics. He also wanted to test two different types of polarization—or the direction the radio wave was oriented—at 2.8 megahertz, to see if polarization made any difference in the aurora that was produced.
Fallen’s next chance to answer these questions will be in early spring, when HAARP fires up for another research campaign; it only runs two a year due to staffing and funding constraints.
Heating the ionosphere directly allows scientists to conduct controlled experiments, which is a rarity in the field of atmospheric physics.
“Almost never in space science do we get to do active experiments. We almost always just sit here and wait for the sun to deposit energy and make things happen,” says John Hughes, a radar physicist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who used to work at HAARP. “HAARP gives us the ability to poke it a little bit and gives us a new way to understand how this whole system works.”
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Rainer Weiss, a physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will receive half the prize, while California Institute of Technology physicists Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne will spilt the other half. The three were awarded for conceiving and creating the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO.
LIGO consists of two facilities, one in Hanford, Wash., and one in Livingston, La. Each is made up of two 4-kilometer-long tunnels at right angles to each other. Scientists fire laser beams down each tunnel and measure their reflections. When a gravity wave passes through Earth, it compresses space by a small amount, like a ripple in a pond, and produces a tiny perturbation in the light. In September 2015, LIGO detected the ripple produced when two massive black holes spiraled into each other, 1.3 billion light years away.
Just last week, a sister detector in Italy called Virgo announced the discovery of another collision, the fourth reported so far. That was the first to be measured by three detectors—which allows scientists to locate the source in the sky and point other telescopes toward the event.
“It’s a new branch of science, gravitational wave astronomy,” says Sheldon Glashow, a professor of physics at Boston University, who himself won the Nobel in 1979 for contributions to the theory that two fundamental forces of physics, the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force, interacted.
Glashow says the Nobel committee did a good job of divvying up the prize, which totals 9 million Swedish krona, or roughly $1.1 million. “They recognized two of the pioneers of the search, together with the person who actually made it happen.”
Weiss and another scientist, Ron Drever of the University of Glasgow, had separately come up with the idea to use lasers to detect gravitational waves in the mid-1970s. Weiss and Thorne figured out how they might make a detector, and Drever joined them in the project. The group had trouble gaining funding from the National Science Foundation, and eventually Drever, who died this past March, was forced out of the project. Glashow says it wasn’t until Barish came in, in 1994, that the project finally went ahead. “NSF was about to cancel it, but then they said ‘Get Barry, and he’ll solve the problem,’” Glashow says.
Weiss, he says, was the one who figured out what kind of sensitivity such a detector would need to be able to detect gravitational waves. “He was the guy who knew what they needed. Barish was the guy who made it happen,” Glashow said. Thorne, meanwhile, was the evangelist, convincing scientists and the public that this was a worthwhile endeavor.
The 2015 detection recorded the merger of two black holes, one with 29 times the mass of the sun and the other with 36 times the sun’s mass. Glashow says that was surprising to physicists, who believed most ordinary black holes would be only two or three solar masses, except for the giant ones at the centers of galaxies, which can be thousands or millions of times as massive. Now, he says, scientists have to figure out what would produce these intermediate black holes.
LIGO is currently shut down, and the detectors are being upgraded to make them more sensitive. When they’re put back online, they should be able to detect events twice as far away, which means covering eight times the volume of space.
One project will involve trying to measure the polarization of cosmic background radiation, the signature left over from the Big Bang. That, says Glashow, could tell scientists something about the nature of primordial black holes formed near the beginning of the universe, about which they know very little. Measuring the polarization of the gravity waves produced by the collapse of black holes “tells you the tiny little details of Einstein’s theory,” he says.
And some people—not Glashow, he points out—think that gravitational studies will give hints about the existence of axions, theoretical particles that, if they exist, may help explain dark matter, one of the biggest mysteries in cosmology today.
Whatever LIGO and similar detectors find, they’re opening up a new field of science, Glashow says. “Every time we open a window—radio astronomy, x-ray astronomy—we find things we didn’t expect,” he says. With gravitational wave astronomy, “we’ve found the things we expected, but we’re beginning to find the things we didn’t expect.”
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