Talk about out of the box thinking.
The US Air Force is looking to extend their radio communication ability so they’ve decided to detonate plasma bombs in the atmosphere using tiny satellites.
The satellites would be seeded in the atmosphere and then detonated to release the plasma, which would charge the ionosphere and make it possible to extend the reach of radio signals.
Normally, the curvature of the Earth stops radio signals from travelling more than 70 miles, but the Air Force’s plasma bomb communication system would extend that range and improve communications over long distances.
The problem is the Air Force doesn’t know how to make all this happen, so they’ve hired three private companies to develop the technology, design the system and build the plasma bombs.
The plasma bombs would basically be large quantities of radio-reflecting ionized gas stuffed into tiny CubeSat satellites measuring 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm, John Kline from Research Support Instruments told Science News.
“These are really early-stage projects, representing the boundaries of plasma research into ionosphere modification. It may be an insurmountable challenge.”
This isn’t the first time the government has messed with the atmosphere in an attempt to improve radio communications. In Alaska, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), used to study the aurora borealis, uses radiation from an array of ground antennas to stimulate the atmosphere, Physicist Thomas Leyser told New Scientist.
“In order to transmit a radio beam, one needs an array of antennas. What we did was to feed all the antennas in the array with slightly different currents.”
We already know radio waves travel better at night; radio stations that can’t be heard during the day can be easily picked up at night. That’s because of the ionosphere, an area in the lower atmosphere, about 37 miles up.
The Air Force wants to improve on this by detonating their plasma bombs in the atmosphere with tiny satellites in an effort to seed the ionosphere with large volumes of ionized gas.
They say this will also help protect the Earth from damaging solar winds, which can knock out communications systems, damage GPS systems and take down power grids.
In addition, the Air Force hopes to use the technology to block communications from enemy satellites.
To design the system, the Air Force has contracted out the $150,000 project to General Sciences of Souderton, Enig Associates, Drexel University, and the University of Maryland.
Drexel Univ. and General Sciences are designing a system that uses a chemical reaction to heat metal beyond its boiling point; it creates plasma when it interacts with the atmosphere, according to Yibada.
“[Their device is] based on the use of highly exothermic condensed phase reactions yielding temperatures considerably higher than the boiling points of candidate metal elements with residual energy to maximize their vapor yield and, with high probability to enter associative ionization (chemi-ionization) reactions with atmospheric oxygen.”
The team from the University of Maryland the Enig Associates uses small detonations to rapidly heat small pieces of metal, which causes them to vaporize in the atmosphere and produce plasma.
Researchers aren’t sure if seeding the atmosphere with plasma bombs will change the ionosphere enough to improve communications and the plan is sure to anger some environmentalists who view meddling with the Earth as a dangerous practice.
Many people fear the dangers of ionizing radiation, but the effects are unclear. Too much radiation can cause death, but controlled amounts are commonly used in science and medicine.
What do you think about the Air Force’s plan to detonate plasma bombs in the atmosphere to improve communications.
[Photo credit: AP Photo/Mark Farmer]