In 1963, the United States launched half a billion whisker-thin copper wires into orbit as part of Project West Ford:
The Air Force and Department of Defense envisioned the West Ford ring as the largest radio antenna in human history. Its goal was to protect the nation’s long-range communications in the event of an attack from the increasingly belligerent Soviet Union.
During the late 1950’s, long-range communications relied on undersea cables or over-the-horizon radio. These were robust, but not invulnerable. Should the Soviets have attacked an undersea telephone or telegraph cable, America would only have been able to rely on radio broadcasts to communicate overseas. But the fidelity of the ionosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that makes most long-range radio broadcasts possible, is at the mercy of the sun: It is routinely disrupted by solar storms. The U.S. military had identified a problem.
A potential solution was born in 1958 at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, a research station on Hanscom Air Force Base northwest of Boston. Project Needles, as it was originally known, was Walter E. Morrow’s idea. He suggested that if Earth possessed a permanent radio reflector in the form of an orbiting ring of copper threads, America’s long-range communications would be immune from solar disturbances and out of reach of nefarious Soviet plots.
Each copper wire was about 1.8 centimeters in length. This was half the wavelength of the 8 GHz transmission signal beamed from Earth, effectively turning each filament into what is known as a dipole antenna. The antennas would boost long-range radio broadcasts without depending on the fickle ionosphere.
On October 21, 1961, NASA launched the first batch of West Ford dipoles into space. A day later, this first payload had failed to deploy from the spacecraft, and its ultimate fate was never completely determined.
“U.S.A. Dirties Space” read a headline in the Soviet newspaper Pravda.
Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was forced to make a statement before the UN declaring that the U.S. would consult more closely with international scientists before attempting another launch. Many remained unsatisfied. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle went so far as to accuse the U.S. of undertaking a military project under “a façade of respectability,” referring to West Ford as an “intellectual crime.”
On May 9, 1963, a second West Ford launch successfully dispersed its spindly cargo approximately 3,500 kilometers above the Earth, along an orbit that crossed the North and South Pole. Voice transmissions were successfully relayed between California and Massachusetts, and the technical aspects of the experiment were declared a success. As the dipole needles continued to disperse, the transmissions fell off considerably, although the experiment proved the strategy could work in principle.
Concern about the clandestine and military nature of West Ford continued following this second launch. On May 24 of that year, the The Harvard Crimson quoted British radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell as saying, “The damage lies not with this experiment alone, but with the attitude of mind which makes it possible without international agreement and safeguards.”
Because the copper wires were so light, project leaders assumed that they would re-enter the atmosphere within several years, pushed Earthward by solar wind. Most of the needles from the failed 1961 and successful 1963 launch likely met this fate. Many now lie beneath snow at the poles.
But not all the needles returned to Earth. Thanks to a design flaw, it’s possible that several hundred, perhaps thousands of clusters of clumped needles still reside in orbit around Earth, along with the spacecraft that carried them.
The copper needles were embedded in a naphthalene gel designed to evaporate quickly once it reached the vacuum of space, dispersing the needles in a thin cloud. But this design allowed metal-on-metal contact, which, in a vacuum, can weld fragments into larger clumps.
In 2001, the European Space Agency published a report that analyzed the fate of needle clusters from the two West Ford payloads. Unlike the lone needles, these chains and clumps have the potential to remain in orbit for several decades, and NORAD space debris databases list several dozen still aloft from the 1963 mission. But the ESA report suggests that, because the 1961 payload failed to disperse, thousands more clusters could have been deployed, and several may be too small to track.
Please note that prominent opponents of the project included Pravda and The Harvard Crimson.
(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)