While you were sleeping, drinking coffee, binging on Netflix or otherwise unaware of what was happening in the atmosphere, China and Russia were experimenting with it behind your back.
Nobody knows why scientists from the two countries joined forces to perform those tests. There is speculation that the experiments, which involved heating the ionosphere (the layer of the upper atmosphere with a high concentrations of ionized plasma) had something to do with the military, but the real reason remains unknown. Their results were recently published in Earth and Planetary Physics.
Is it really that easy to keep this kind of operation a secret when you’re using a super-transmitter like Russia’s Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility to pump the ionized plasma into the ionosphere full of radio energy in order to manipulate it? Maybe it is when the real action is going on 310 miles above your head.
After Russia had released enough energy to stimulate the ionosphere, the China Seismographic Electromagnetic Satellite (CSES) Zhangheng-1 used its sensors to observe the whole thing from orbit and record what exactly was going on up there. At least most of the tests didn’t set off plasma disturbances — except one.
That problematic test triggered a spike in electricity that was 10 times more loaded with negatively charged ions than the sky surrounding it — never mind that it covered 49,000 square miles.
NASA image of Earth’s ionosphere (that eerie purple cloud surrounding the planet). Credit: NASA
There was another test that, while not sounding quite as sci-fi-horror as the previous one, still shot the temperature of ionized gas up by 212 degrees Fahrenheit in one area.
What can experiments like this tell us? If you’ve ever seen an aurora, you’ve seen a phenomenon that happens because of charged particles in the ionosphere getting too close to Earth’s magnetic field. More important, the ionosphere bounces radio waves off the surface, and free electrons in this layer of the atmosphere affect many types of communications that are prone to being cut off by space weather like solar storms.
This is where the military speculation comes in. It is highly possible that Russia and China were trying to manipulate the ionosphere to figure out how to prevent their communications getting cut off. Communications can also be blocked by structures that scatter radio waves or an increase in plasma, whether natural or artificial.
Ionospheric research is conducted right here in the US. The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) has been plagued by so many conspiracy theories that there was an open house in 2016 to clear false rumors of everything from weather manipulation to mind control.
If all this is still freaking you out, scientists have also managed to create an aurora in the ionosphere, which is so much cooler than fireworks.