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].

Cloud Constructor

375831pu[Image: An airplane hangar in Utah, via the U.S. Library of Congress].

Another book I read while jet-lagged in London last week was Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker; its chapter “Wayfinding” is particularly fascinating and worth seeking out.

375827pu[Image: Interior view of same hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

The previous post here, however, mentioned 19th-century cloud chambers, and I was accordingly struck by a quick line in Vanhoenacker’s book. At one point, he describes the construction of airplane bodies inside sprawling factory buildings, whose contained volumes of air are so enormous they can generate their own weather. They are internal skies.

“Some airplane factories are so large,” he writes, “that clouds once formed inside them, a foreshadowing of the sky to come for each newborn jet.”

375829pu[Image: Utah airplane hangar, via U.S. Library of Congress].

Of course, other megastructures are also known to produce internal precipitation. NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral “is the second largest building (by volume) in the world,” for example, “and it even has its own weather inside—NASA employees report that rain clouds form below the ceiling on very humid days.”

And, as architecture writers like David Gissen and Sean Lally have compellingly shown, architecture—in and of itself—has, in a sense, always been a kind of applied atmospheric design, with buildings defined as much by temperature, barometry, and humidity as they are by walls and ceilings.

But I nevertheless love the idea of aircraft assembly and repair occurring amidst inadvertent simulations of the sky to come, as dew points are crossed, condensation begins, and internal weather fronts blurrily amass above the wings of dormant airplanes, as if conjured there in a dream.

Cereal Bags of the Stratosphere

[Image: One of Google’ Loon balloons; screen grab from this video].

“The lab is 250 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and 70 feet tall. It’s a massive space where Google’s scientists can simulate the negative-60 degrees Celsius temperature of the stratosphere.” Alexis Madrigal on Google’s Project Loon balloons.

The future of the internet is cereal bag technology in the sky.

Skyfall

Although the Earth itself will be coming to its fiery and magmatic end in 7 billion years’ time, its nighttime skies will be undergoing an extraordinary slow-motion light-show: the merging of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies.

An animation released last summer by NASA, called “What the Night Sky Will Look Like Over the Next 7 Billion Years” and embedded above, depicts the glowing filaments of these two galaxies, like plate tectonics in space, crashing together, gravitationally distorting one another, and then merging in a featureless cloud of light.

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

In his weird, brilliant, and unimaginably dense book The Invention of the Zero poet Richard Kenney exclaims, “Imagine, all new constellations! …a seethe / and flume of unfamiliar skies.”

But such skies are not merely the domain of speculative poetry, as they are, in fact, on their way, roiling toward us in billion-year-long collisions that we, as a species, will never see the true light of.

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

I’m reminded of an essay by geologist Steven Dutch, at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, called “The Earth Has A Future,” originally published in the May 2006 issue of Geosphere.

Advocating what he calls a “futurist approach” to the planetary sciences, Dutch points out that “a million years is relatively short in geologic terms. For example, even the fastest plates, moving on the order of 15 cm/yr, will have moved only 150 km in a million years, enough to have very significant local geological effects but scarcely enough to be casually noticeable on a globe.”

However, Dutch’s “futurist approach” to landscape studies becomes particularly fascinating when he turns his attention upward, to the sky, looking out beyond the Earth to what stars and their constellations might look like in roughly one million years. Dutch predicts, for instance, that “distant star patterns like Orion should be recognizable” for several hundred thousand years, “but many constellations will have changed noticeably.”

In other words, the sky is always—even now—adrift, already fulfilling Kenney’s “seethe and flume of unfamiliar skies.”

[Image: Via HubbleSite].

But that’s just a million years. Multiply that by seven-and-a-half thousand, and the heavenly distortions torquing through the skies above us become magical even to contemplate.

(Related: Pruned‘s Proposal for an Ideas Competition Seeking Design Proposals for a Pavilion for Viewing the Coming Intergalactic Collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way).

Bride of Climate Change

[Image: The earth is coming to get you… A dust storm in Iraq, via Pruned].

“Someday the U.S. military could drive a trailer to a spot just beyond insurgent fighting and, within minutes,” we read, “reconfigure part of the atmosphere, blocking an enemy’s ability to receive satellite signals, even as U.S. troops are able to see into the area with radar.”

They’ll roll up, in other words – and throw storms at you.

[Images: The Grand Island Supercell, photographed by Mike Hollingshead].

But imagine what an architect, or landscape architect, might do with such a thing: some atmosphere-reconfiguration technology disguised inside pillars, towers and arcades. An 18th c. English garden maze, lined with lichen-covered statuary, and each standing figure is an atmosphere-machine, generating clouds or clearing them. A cure for British weather.

You can turn them all on, in the right order, fast enough, and form tornadoes. The murderer of birds, whirled to their doom. And if it’s too close to Heathrow, your garden becomes a national security threat.

Harry Potter and the Garden of Storms.

[Images: An almost theologically intense supercell, photographed by Mike Hollingshead].

A new tower is built in midtown Manhattan, attracting storms, its upper floors constantly awash in sleeves of cloud cover. Ghostbusters III. Transmitters hidden inside marshland graveyards far east of London: Dracula Returns.

Or none of the above, just a military unit on a border somewhere, staring through binoculars, preparing to hurl hurricanes, the grand wizardy of war: Bride of Climate Change. A weaponized earth.