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Air Force Considering Transfer Of HAARP Facility To UAF

Fairbanks, AK - The Air Force has paused a plan to demolish the HAARP facility, as it reconsiders options for transferring its ionospheric research infrastructure near Gakona to another entity. As KUAC’s Dan Bross reports, that could be the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks would own and operate the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility under a proposal before the Air Force. UAF Geophysical Institute Director Bob McCoy confirms the university has been pursuing the possibility of taking over HAARP. "President Gamble and Chanellor Rogers volunteered to take ownership, but so far we haven't completed these discussions," he said. 

McCoy says the offer was initially made during a HAARP summit held in Washington, D.C. at the end of February.  HAARP employs large generators to send powerful radio signals through a field of 180 antennas into the ionosphere, to stimulate activity like aurora.

It’s the most powerful of three so called “atmospheric heaters” in the world, and widely acknowledged as valuable for communications and other research, but the Air Force has decided it no longer needs the facility and closed it last year. It’s slated for demolition this summer unless a new operator is found, and alternative funding can be secured.  McCoy says HAARP is expensive to operate.

"There's maintenance and there's operations and when it's running it consumes quite a bit of diesel, so we're trying to figure out ways to share the cost among government agencies so that we can continue to use it," he said.  

McCoy likens UAF taking on HAARP to the university’s management of the Poker Flat Rocket Range outside Fairbanks for NASA

"The University of Alaska and the Geophysical Institute, we own it. Scientists from around the country propose to NASA, get funding, build rockets, come here and we help NASA launch them. That's a good model, and we operate it fairly cost effectively. NASA likes us," he said.

McCoy cites similar partnerships with government agencies under which UAF is funded to operate the Alaska Earthquake Information Center and Alaska Satellite facility.  UAF scientists have long used HAARP for research.

UAF assistant professor of space engineering physics Chris Fallen says, "I'm using HAARP to understand or model the artificial blue aurora and enhanced plamsa ionization." He says the loss of HAARP would handicap his research.

"Without HAARP, we basically have to wait for nature to create various events in the upper atmosphere that we can then study and try to explain," he said.

Fallen and other scientists have worked at HARRP at the invitation of the Air Force. He says if UAF took it over, scientists could contract out time at the facility. Dozens of researchers from around the world have signed a petition and submitted letters of support for HAARP’s continued operation. The documents were forwarded to the Secretary of Defense by Senator Lisa Murkowski. Spokesman Mathew Felling emphasizes HAARP’s future hinges on funding.

"America invested $300 million in HAARP, and it costs less than one percent of that to keep it running every year. The science is not in question. This is completely an economic exercise, and Murkowski wants to bring people together to see what creative approaches can be found," he said.

Felling says HAARP has been poor at self promotion, but the recent discussion about it being scrapped has raised its profile.  Felling says the Air Force is expected to make an announcement about HAARP’s future as early as Monday.              

Dan has been in public radio news in Alaska since 1993. He’s worked as a reporter, newscaster and talk show host at stations in McGrath, Valdez and Fairbanks. Dan’s experience includes coverage of a wide range of topics, from wolf control to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and dog mushing.