Plasma Bombs and Sky Bridges

[Image: Via NOAA].

The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a handful of small business grants for exploring the “controlled enhancement of the ionosphere.” The aim of the grants is to find new ways “to improve radio communication over long distances”—and one of these ways might be “detonating plasma bombs in the upper atmosphere using a fleet of micro satellites,” or cubesats, New Scientist reports.

As the initiating government contract describes it, in order to perform this new atmospheric role, the cubesats—or an equally viable competitor technology—will need to produce “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… Such hardware will provide for controlled release options such as conventional point release, as well as extended in time and space.”

They would be, in effect, small plasma ovens—the metaphoric “bombs” of the New Scientist article.

The resulting “vapor yield” from metallic elements boiling in space would then chemically interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to create the aforementioned plasma. While spreading locally through the ionosphere, the plasma would, in turn, generate small patches of electromagnetic reflectivity across which radio signals could be bounced or relayed.

By ricocheting along this sky bridge of temporary plasma patches—like tiny chemical mirrors in space—radio signals would be able to travel far beyond the curvature of the Earth, greatly increasing the distance and accuracy of specific transmissions.

This long-range transformation of the sky itself into a transmitting medium recalls the work of radio historian Douglas Kahn. Kahn’s book Earth Sound Earth Signal specifically looks at the role of terrestrial and atmospheric dynamics on radio transmission, including the deliberate incorporation of those seemingly unwanted side-effects—such as interference from sunspot activity—into electronic art projects.

Kahn’s work came up on BLDGBLOG several years ago, for example, in discussing a proposal from the 1960s for transforming an entire Antarctic island into a radio-transmitting apparatus. The topographic profile and geologic make-up of the island made it a great potential resonator, according to researcher Millett G. Morgan.

[Image: [Image: Deception Island, from Millett G. Morgan’s September 1960 paper An Island as a Natural Very-Low-Frequency Transmitting Antenna].

By taking advantage of these physical factors—and even subtly tweaking them in what we could also call “controlled enhancement”—the island would become part of a dispersed global infrastructure of electromagnetic relay points.

It’s worth mentioning that this would also make a fascinating landscape design project: sculpting a patch of terrain, from its exposed landforms and its subsurface mineralogy to the flora planted there, such as tree-antennas, so that the whole thing becomes a kind of radio-transmitting garden.

In any case, these tactical archipelagoes of plasma dispersed across the ionosphere by military cubesats would enable emergency wartime radio contact around the planet. By introducing patches of reflectivity, they would create a temporary extension of ground-based antenna infrastructure, stretching from one side of the Earth to another, an invisible bridge in the sky put to use for planet-wide communication.

Read the original contracting information over at the Small Business Innovation Research hub.

Briefly, it’s interesting to note another piece of recent tech news. Back in April, Swati Khandelwal reported that “a team of researchers from the University of Washington’s Sensor Lab and the Delft University of Technology has developed a new gadget that doesn’t need a battery or any external power source to keep it powered; rather it works on radio waves.”

She was referring to a device called WISP, “a small, battery-less computer that works on harvested radio waves,” in the words of project researcher Przemyslaw Pawelczak.*

[Image: Przemyslaw Pawelczak’s “small, battery-less computer that works on harvested radio waves”].

This is relevant for the possibility that this sort of thing could be scaled up to much larger pieces of equipment, such as uncrewed ground vehicles or other autonomous machines (including rovers on other planets); those devices could then be deployed in the field and simply wait there, essentially hidden in a powerless state.

You could then turn on these otherwise dormant computers, even from a great distance, using only pinpointed radio transmissions assisted on their way around the planet by localized plasma clouds; like electromagnetic Frankensteins, these sleeper-systems could thus be brought back to life by this strange, military wizardry of otherwise impossible radio transmissions.

Patches of plasma appear in the sky—and machines around the world begin to awaken.

[Note: When using the appropriate Polish lettering, Przemysław Pawełczak’s name renders oddly with this blog’s typeface; it is thus deliberately misspelled in the text, above; apologies to Pawełczak. Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for his thoughts on sleeper systems while I was writing this post. Very vaguely related: Operation Deep Sleep: or, dormant robots at the bottom of the sea].

Antarctic Island Radio

[Image: Deception Island, from Millett G. Morgan’s September 1960 paper An Island as a Natural Very-Low-Frequency Transmitting Antenna].

Yesterday’s post reminded me of an interesting proposal from the 1960s, in which an entire Antarctic island would be transformed into a radio-conducting antenna. Signals of international (or military submarine) origin could thus be bounced, relayed, captured, and re-transmitted using the topographical features of the island itself, and naturally occurring ionospheric radio noise could be studied.

[Image: A map of Deception Island, taken from an otherwise unrelated paper called “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” published in Antarctic Science (2005)].

In the September 1960 issue of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, radio theorist Millett G. Morgan, a “leading researcher in the field of ionospheric physics” based at Dartmouth, speculated that he could generate artificial “whistlers”—that is, audial electromagnetic effects that are usually caused by lightning—if only he could find the right island.

“In thinking about how to generate whistlers artificially,” Morgan’s proposal leisurely begins, “it has occurred to me that an island of suitable size and shape, extending through the conducting sea, may constitute a naturally resonant, VLF slot antenna of high quality.”

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

He looked far and wide for this “naturally resonant, VLF slot antenna,” eventually settling on a remote island in the Antarctic. “Following this line of reasoning,” he explains, “I thought first of the annular Pacific atolls, but knowing of the fresh-water lenses in them”—that is, aquatic features that would destructively interfere with radio transmissions—”[I] rejected them as being too pervious to water to be satisfactory insulators. Also, of course, they are not found in suitable latitudes for generating whistlers.”

Morgan’s reasoning continued: “The Pacific atolls are built upon submerged volcanic cones and this led me to think of Deception Island in the SubAntarctic, a remarkable, similarly shaped, volcanic island in which the volcanic rock extends above the surface; and which is located in the South Shetland Islands where the rate of occurrence of natural whistlers has been found to be very great.”

Perhaps the island could be the geologic radio antenna he was looking for.

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

Morgan points out in detail that mathematical ratios amongst the island’s naturally occurring landscape features, including its ring-shaped lagoon, are perfect for supporting radio transmissions (even the relationship between the length of the island and the radio wavelengths Morgan would be using seems to work out). And that’s before he looks at the material construction of the island itself, consisting of volcanic tuff, which would help the terrain act as an “insulator.”

There is even the fact that the island’s small lagoon is coincidentally but unrelatedly named “Telefon Bay” (alas, named after a ship called the Telefon, not for the island’s natural ability to make telephone calls).

[Image: Deception Island, from “Upper crustal structure of Deception Island area (Bransfield Strait, Antarctica) from gravity and magnetic modelling,” Antarctic Science (2005)].

Morgan’s “proposed island antenna” would thus be a wired-up matrix of transmission lines and natural landscape features, bouncing radio wavelengths at the perfect angle from one side to the other and concentrating broadcasts for human use and listening.

You could tune into the sky, huddling in the Antarctic cold and listening to the curling electromagnetic crackle of the ionosphere, or you could use your new radio-architectural set-up, all wires and insulators like some strange astronomical harp, “to generate whistlers artificially,” as Morgan’s initial speculation stated, bursting forth with planetary-scale arcs of noise over a frozen sea, a wizard of sound alone and self-deafened at the bottom of the world.

(Deception Island proposal discovered via Douglas Kahn, whose forthcoming book Arts of the Spectrum: In the nature of electromagnetism looks fantastic, and who also gave an interesting talk on “natural radio” a few years ago at UCLA).