UAF lands $9.3M grant to expand research at HAARP

The HAARP antenna array. (University of Alaska Fairbanks)

A National Science Foundation grant will allow the University of Alaska Fairbanks to expand activities at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Gakona.

The U.S. military built HAARP in the 1990s for $290 million to conduct ionospheric research related to communications, navigation, surveillance and more. But in 2015 the Air Force ended the program and turned HAARP over to the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

UAF has operated it sporadically since for government and independent clients.

“We’ve been charging a little over $5,000 an hour to use the facility,” UAF Geophysical Institute Director Bob McCoy said. “But we haven’t had very many hours, so it’s been costing us quite a bit.”

McCoy said the five-year, $9.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation will enable the university to maintain the HAARP facility and expand operations.

“Now we can open it up fully and invite in people to use it, so it’s a really big deal for us,” McCoy said.

McCoy said the HAARP station is the most powerful of three ionospheric research facilities on the planet. It uses hundreds of high frequency radio transmitters and antennas to probe the ionosphere, the layer of earth’s atmosphere that extends 50 to 600 miles above the surface.

McCoy said it’s a tool that will be increasingly valuable for scientific experiments involving the aurora as the solar cycle peaks.

“The next four or five years, the ionosphere should get a lot more exciting,” McCoy said. “You should see, in the winter, a lot more dynamic aurora.”

HAARP is also useful as a remote sensing tool, an application McCoy said is in demand as the Arctic warms and countries vie for control of it.

“We can actually look north several hundred miles from Alaska, and we can study the ocean,” McCoy said. “We can measure sea ice, and we can look for aircraft or ships out in the Arctic Ocean. HAARP can transmit, say, to the north, reflect off the ionosphere down to the sea ice, and you pick up that signal again either with an antenna or a satellite.”

McCoy said a separate grant will provide a million dollars to build and locate LIDAR instruments at the HAARP site, to study other parts of the upper atmosphere. That, together with other instrumentation UAF plans to relocate to the HAARP site, will make up what’s being called the Subauroral Geophysical Observatory for Space Physics and Radio Science.

Correction: The original version of this story put the dollar amount of the NSF grant at $3 million. The correct amount is $9.3 million.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.