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US Air Force Wants To Plasma Bomb The Sky To Improve Radio Communication ( 159

An anonymous reader quotes a report from New Scientist: [The U.S. Air Force has plans to improve radio communication over long distances by detonating plasma bombs in the upper atmosphere using a fleet of micro satellites. It's not the first time we've tried to improve radio communication by tinkering with the ionosphere. HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska, stimulates the ionosphere with radiation from ground-based antennas to produce radio-reflecting plasma.] Now the USAF wants to do this more efficiently, with tiny satellites -- such as CubeSats -- carrying large volumes of ionized gas directly into the ionosphere. As well as increasing the range of radio signals, the USAF says it wants to smooth out the effects of solar winds, which can knock out GPS, and also investigate the possibility of blocking communication from enemy satellites. [There are at least two major challenges. One is building a plasma generator small enough to fit on a CubeSat -- roughly 10 centimeters cubed. Then there's the problem of controlling exactly how the plasma will disperse once it is released. The USAF has awarded three contracts to teams who are sketching out ways to tackle the approach. The best proposal will be selected for a second phase in which plasma generators will be tested in vacuum chambers and exploratory space flights.]
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US Air Force Wants To Plasma Bomb The Sky To Improve Radio Communication

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  • Why? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What is the real reason here? It is not as if we have a problem with communication these days. I post this in Europe, people all over the world can read it after a fraction of a second. Bandwith and latency are solved problems too - go download something or play online games.

    Cables and satellites work fine. Why make short-lived modifications to the ionosphere, that need to be constantly replenished? If they can afford a set of satellites, why not simply use those as communication relays? The lag is not so

    • Re:Why? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Lord Bitman ( 95493 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @05:33AM (#52731279) Homepage

      There aren't enough cables. The Internet is such absurdly critical infrastructure, and we have only a handful of cables even for the most-dense connections. While the Internet routes around damage efficiently, the amount of time it takes to route around damage is longer than would be desired these days (where an assumption of failure is the norm for critical applications), and a small reduction in capacity could easily be catastrophic.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Cables don't interfere with each other the way that radio signals do. Technology will improve, but you need a certain amount of separation between the channels in order to get a clear signal. The closer the signals are together in terms of frequency, the more susceptible both signals are to interference from outside sources of radiation.

        Cables also have a much more predictable amount of penetration and absorbtion. We know that no matter how wide a wall is, that a cable will or won't go through. With wireles

      • If safety critical systems can fail catastrophically, the designer already failed miserably at his job.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Jzanu ( 668651 )
      That assumes operation in industrial nations, which is not where any military deploys on a regular basis. For the same reasons significant research has been done in remote power generation including using radioactive decay for nuclear power without building a reactor. Environments differ, and your knowledge of your mother's basement has little application to a battlefield in Afghanistan or anywhere else with rugged and inhospitable terrain.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 )

        Environments differ, and your knowledge of your mother's basement has little application to a battlefield in Afghanistan or anywhere else with rugged and inhospitable terrain.

        That's odd, my mom used to tell me my room looked like a war zone.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        "Sorry Mr. President, we can't move in to take that territory until we run some more fiber, should take a few months at best. I'm sure the enemy will wait around for us, no problem."

        Oh wait, I forgot enemies are illusions and humans are all really one big happy family who would never want to kill each other for any reason other than nation states and religion. My bad.

  • by BBCWatcher ( 900486 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @05:17AM (#52731245)
    Bearing in mind that public funds are involved here, I'm struggling to understand why improving radio communications using "plasma bomb" satellites is such a great idea when satellites already do such a great job improving radio communications. In other words, we have vast numbers of artificial ionosphere "bouncers" already orbiting our planet, and we can also have high altitude tethered balloons and long duration airborne aircraft (perhaps solar electric) that the likes of Google and Facebook are working on -- and with much less investment than even one copy of the some of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force flies. We already know how to bounce radio signals all around the globe, and it's already cheap, reliable, and secure. So what's the "value add" here that merits substantial public investment? Anybody have any ideas?
    • by messymerry ( 2172422 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @05:28AM (#52731269)
      Maybe they know something we don't. This setup will allow for an alternate comm path should the current satellites and cables become unavailable. Hams and the government would still be able to communicate. Assuming an EMP event, then most of the hams would be out of business and only the govt would still be able to communicate with the equipment that we paid for them to harden... Just sayin'
      • Assuming an EMP event, then most of the hams would be out of business and only the govt would still be able to communicate with the equipment that we paid for them to harden... Just sayin'

        You may have it backwards. Hams are known for collecting what are known among hams as "boat anchors"...vintage equipment using vacuum tube technology. Attend any hamfest and you'll see almost literally tons of such equipment for sale/trade. Some of the more recent tube-type shortwave radios ('60s-'70s) are even capable of SSB (Single Side Band) and other modes of operation besides the traditional CW (Morse) and AM voice.

        Tube-based communications equipment by it's nature is usually capable of surviving far h

        • Russia is today a major supplier of vacuum tubes used in such things as guitar amplifiers and Faux audiophile equipment.

    • by NotAPK ( 4529127 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @05:42AM (#52731299)

      The last time the USA fucked around with the ionosphere was a bit of a disaster. Please do not do this again; just leave it alone. Wired article []. They are also an object group on [].

    • The whole purpose of this is to facilitate non-satellite transmission of signals using ionospheric skywave propagation []. This is the most common over-the-horizon communication method for HF frequencies (3-30MHz) and below. The military uses HF for tactical communications using radios like the Harris Falcon series [] manpacks. HF is also used for the Military Auxiliary Radio Service [] as well as Civil Air Patrol []. None of these uses have dependence on satellites which are, in any event, potentially prone to att
    • by DarkOx ( 621550 )

      All of those things you suggest are either reusable or durable. The military wants something that is neither. They want something they have blow up because that way they get something they can keep buying over and over again, so their procurement guys keep getting their kick backs. Congress persons want something they can blow up because its continuous stream of pork to their district.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What could possibly go wrong?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Buried at the bottom of the article, the real reason for wanting to do this " the possibility of blocking communication from enemy satellites."

    • Mr(s) President we have good news and bad news.
      The good news is that we now have excellent radio communication.
      The bad news is the atmosphere will be be too thin to breath in about 20 days.

      on a side note, we had figured out how to achieve ludicrous speed.

    • What could possibly go wrong?

      Oblig. Morpheus. []

  • by coastwalker ( 307620 ) <> on Friday August 19, 2016 @05:29AM (#52731271) Homepage

    This is excellent news if true. Short wave broadcast radio has been in decline all my life and radio hams have increasingly turned to the more exciting fields of digital communications and microwave. If it livens up the bands again then I am all for it. I assume that the objective is to learn how to thicken it up enough to locally cut off communications from space thereby killing the enemies communications network. The only downside might be disruption of radio astronomy, but we should be doing that from the moon anyway.

    • by yabutydu ( 1002891 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @06:19AM (#52731355)
      OMG! This is one of the worst ideas I have seen in a long time. Shortwave radio broadcast has been in decline simply because with the advent of practically universal worldwide handheld communication devices amateur radio has had difficulty capturing the minds of individual people. The Internet has given access to communications in the form of text, speech, vision, etc around the world and in modalities beyond measure. What the Air Force is talking about here is in reality polluting the ionosphere on a massive scale. It is the equivalent of contaminating or poisoning the ocean. Making the ionosphere opaque to electromagnetic radiation of any form would be fraught with difficulties beyond measure. Developing and using such an ability and using it as a weapon is (at least in my view) insane! "Keep your hands off my ionosphere!" would be my slogan!!!
    • > The only downside might be disruption of radio astronomy, but we should be doing that from the moon anyway.

      We should but we're not. We would rather spend billions on killing others then having a research base on the moon. :-/

      • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

        > The only downside might be disruption of radio astronomy, but we should be doing that from the moon anyway.

        We should but we're not. We would rather spend billions on killing others then having a research base on the moon. :-/

        "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

    • If we had the capability to do radio astronomy from the Moon, then we would still want to have the ability to do it from the Earth. That's a pretty impressive baseline distance to be able to perform interferometry using.

  • by LordHighExecutioner ( 4245243 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @05:37AM (#52731293)
    Given the size of ionosphere, the ionisation density and recombination rate, and the size of a micro satellite this project looks like trying to deplete Lake Tahoe with a teaspoon...
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      So you're saying there's a chance!

    • The question is whether a tiny cubesat can emit enough plasma to be even *detectable* with radar or other ground based communications (like ham radio). There is very little mass available. I suppose this is a science experiment to characterize the dispersal and recombination of plasma clouds in LEO. That might be useful for understanding natural processes -- or as a prototype for some *serious* propagation enhancement project in the future.

      IIRC, there have been experiments like this in the past with sub

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Let me try to quantify it. Ionospheric electron content is measured as a column density of free electrons, where ~10^17 electrons/m^2 is typical (though it can be a factor of a few larger or smaller than this). Given the surface area of the earth, this gives us a total of ~10^38 free electrons. If the "plasma bombs" were made entirely of hydrogen, which was perfectly ionised, they'd need ~2*10^14 g = 200 trillion tonnes of fuel to double the current electron content of the ionosphere.

      The people running t

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Some Generals need a plasma bomb exploded straight up their arseholes. Damn people always f$&%ing with nature only thing that is truly valuable.

  • Bullshit. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Just put order of magnitude in this plan, and you see this is pure bullshit.

  • And people laugh at chemtrails. Ha! (ha ha)
  • by dmbasso ( 1052166 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @07:25AM (#52731559)

    Itâ(TM)s ... weâ(TM)ve ... CubeSat â" roughly ... thereâ(TM)s

    bling bling bling!

    • by Yvan256 ( 722131 )

      First, why is this still happening in 2016?
      Second, why is this still happening in 2016 on a supposedly technically-oriented website?

  • This sounds like the type of thinking that would had caused the condition of Spaceballs.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It sounds simple enough. There's no chance of any problems whatsoever. It's completely 100% safe. Don't worry about it. Everything will be fine. We know what we're doing.

  • But apparently you *can* bomb it.

  • by Gim Tom ( 716904 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @08:28AM (#52731793)
    This sounds like a cover story for something else entirely. Anybody know if they are still using OTH Radar?
    • by dtmos ( 447842 ) *

      Anybody know if they are still using OTH Radar?

      Oh, yes, somebody's still using it. It corrupts many shortwave services from time to time. Heard it myself last month.

  • Living here in Vault 81, I'm pretty sure there's no danger from plasma bombs in the atmosphere.

  • It's only A Matter of Time, 109 days to be exact (nine months and five days) before they burn up the atmosphere of Penthara IV.

  • Terrestrial radio uses frequency division AND geographic separation in order to provide communications ability to the users on this planet. To tinker with the ionosphere would increase propagation even for those signals for which propagation beyond line of sight was not a significant concern. Not every user needs over-the-horizon signaling. To a very large degree, we use the horizon effect for useful things- for one, it allows us to have multiple 100KW television transmitters all using the same channel all
  • i would prefer the government to leave the atmosphere alone, the government tends to cause more harm than good when they go to meddling with things,. i always say the government has a "reverse midas touch" thats where everything they touch turns to shit (instead of gold)
  • An impact study for something like that would take hundreds of years, perhaps thousands of years, to determine what effect it would have.

    There are still people so naive that they believe that we could do no harm so great that it would make the human race's survival difficult and worthless.

  • Morpheus: We don't know who struck first, us or them. But we do know it was us that scorched the sky.

  • 10 centimeters cubed = (10 cm)^3 = 1 litre ~= 1 Quart ~= 60 cu. in. ~= 1/28 cu. ft. ~= the bottom half of four 16 fl. oz water bottles arranged in a square.
    Just trying to make sure people picture things correctly.

  • by macs4all ( 973270 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @10:30AM (#52732489)
    So let me get this straight: We all have to worry about Hairspray, Cow Farts, and every other perceived man-made cause of "Climate Change" (f/k/a "Global Warming"); but now we want to intentionally "pollute" the ionosphere?

    What could possibly go wrong?
  • by dhaen ( 892570 ) on Friday August 19, 2016 @12:43PM (#52733457)
  • come to mind when I hear that they want plasma bomb the atmosphere

  • This won't cause global cooling, will it? ;-)
  • I have never accused the military of making intelligent decisions, and this idea does nothing but solidify that perception.

I bet the human brain is a kludge. -- Marvin Minsky