The High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, the upper-atmosphere research station near Gakona, is owned by the University of Alaska. The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks received a $9.3 million grant that will go toward establishing a new research observatory at the HAARP site in Gakona. 

The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute received a five-year, $9.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The funds will go toward establishing a new research observatory, the Subauroral Geophysical Observatory for Space Physics and Radio Science, at the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) site in Gakona.

Geophysical Institute Director Robert McCoy explained that the bulk of the money is for operating the facility — which centers around the site’s 33-acre Ionospheric Research Instrument — as well as for providing money for NSF scientists to travel to and work at the observatory. The grant covers 200 hours for scientists to use the facility over the next five years, McCoy said. The grant is substantial, but according to McCoy, this is just what it costs to run the site.

He explained that powering the facility requires a lot of diesel; it is used infrequently and “sits there idle most of the time.” Since taking over the $290 million site from the Air Force in 2015, UAF has been charging scientists to use the facility. McCoy estimated that four to six scientists visit each year. However, the small scale operation is “unsustainable,” particularly considering the high cost of running the site.

UAF requested funds from the National Science Foundation to expand their operation. “Already, we have permafrost monitoring facilities and seismometers. We hope to attract a range of geophysical scientists to come make measurements in Gakona,” McCoy said.

The grant will also provide stability for the next few years.

“It gives us five years to run it and to get the word out to the rest of the world,” McCoy said. The hope is that the number of researchers visiting Gakona will double.

Attracting scientists is important because Gakona is home to one of only three HAARP sites in the world, and the only one in the United States. McCoy described the Ionospheric Research Instrument as “the world’s most powerful HAM radio.” It allows scientists to “turn the upper overhead sky into a laboratory” in order to study the upper atmosphere and the geospace environment. McCoy explained that due to its location in relation to one of Earth’s magnetic field lines that stretches into the magnetosphere, Gakona is in an ideal location to study both the ionosphere and the magnetosphere.

“You can do stuff you can’t do anywhere else,” McCoy said.

Specifically, scientists will investigate how the sun impacts Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere to produce changes in weather in space.

“Their work will help fill gaps in knowledge about the region, which is important because ionospheric disturbances can disrupt communications systems and cause damages and outages to power grids,” according to a news release from UAF.

Along these lines, a second project funded by the NSF will add a lidar to the site. A lidar, McCoy said, is “a big laser” that sends pulses of light into the atmosphere. The lidar will allow researchers to measure temperature, winds and structure of the upper atmosphere.

Lastly, a portion of the grant money will go toward community education and outreach, which will include open houses where people can tour the site this summer.

Contact reporter Maisie Thomas at 459-7545.