• Aeryn Avilla

Project West Ford & Earth's Copper Ring

Updated: Sep 9

When most people hear the terms "space debris" or "space junk", they think of old deactivated satellites and spent rocket boosters. Some might even imagine equipment that has drifted away during EVA's or fragments created by anti-satellite weapons. But what about needles?


Project West Ford was a civilian experiment to create an artificial ionosphere above Earth on behalf of the US military. It was carried out by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, a Department of Defense (DOD) funded research station located on Hanscom Air Force Base northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. It was also meant to be the largest radio antenna in human history and fulfill the goal of protecting the country's long-range communications, particularly in the event of an attack. The material of choice? Millions of tiny copper needles.


West Ford needles next to a 4 cent postage stamp (Public Domain)


Project West Ford was originally called Project Needles and was conceptualized by Walter E. Morrow of MIT and Harold Meyer of TRW Inc. in 1958. They theorized that if Earth "possessed a permanent radio reflector in the form of an orbiting ring of copper threads" (Hanson), America's long-range communications would be virtually undisturbed. At the time, all international communications were sent either through submarine communication cables or bounced off the ionosphere. The US military feared the Soviet Union might cut these cables to disrupt communication, and the weather in Earth's ionosphere was unpredictable. A similar idea was devised more than a decade prior in 1945 by science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke when he suggested the German V2 rocket could be repurposed to deploy a collection of antennas into geostationary orbit. The DOD decided to place a ring of 480 million copper antennas in orbit to enable continuous global radio communication. The project was then renamed West Ford after the neighboring town of Westford, Massachusetts.


As the project gained traction and publicity, it also gained considerable criticism: Similar to the concerns of modern day astronomers, radio astronomers became more worried West Ford's needles would interfere with their ability to survey the stars. From this arose the first concerns about the very real and very dangerous problem of space junk. The Soviet newspaper Pravda had a field day as more people around the world became frustrated with West Ford, publishing a paper with the headline "U.S.A. Dirties Space". There was also the concern of transparency since national security efforts, of which included Project West Ford, were allowed to be more opaque than general public efforts. In 1961, President Kennedy ensured the needles would be likely reenter the atmosphere within two years of entering orbit and no further tests would be conducted until the results of the first flights were fully assessed.


Each copper wire was about 0.7 inches (1.8 cm) long, half the wavelength of the 8 GHz transmission signal beamed from Earth. This meant each wire was a dipole antenna [1]. They were placed in medium Earth orbit at an altitude between 2,200 and 2,400 miles (3,500 and 3,800 km) at inclinations of 87° and 96°. These inclinations correspond with a polar orbit. To be placed in polar orbit, Project West Ford's rockets were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the only site capable of polar orbit launches that do not fly over populated areas. Once deployed, the ring would form over a period of about forty days and each needle would be spaced approximately 1,000 feet (0.3 km) apart. Each needle would also be covered in naphthalene gel, which was designed to evaporate quickly once in space. The needles plus their dispenser weighed 88 pounds (40 kg).


Drawing of West Ford needle dispenser (Public Domain)


MIDAS 2 launch atop an Atlas-Agena (NASA)

All three West Ford flights launched on Atlas-Agena rockets from Launch Complex 1-2 at Vandenberg [2].Westford 1 launched on October 21, 1961 and though made it into orbit, the needles failed to deploy. It also flew with the MIDAS 4 early warning satellite. The Westford Drag Experiment launched on April 9, 1962 with MIDAS 5 and its exact nature is still unclear. The third and final mission of the project, Westford 2, along wth MIDAS 6, DASH 1, TRS 5, and TRS 6 launched on May 9, 1963 and successfully scattered millions of tiny copper needles into orbit. There was one problem, though; the naphthalene gel was not evaporating as it should have, resulting in the needles sticking together and forming clumps. Voice transmissions were effectively relayed between California and the Lincoln Lab and the technical aspects of the project were declared a success. As the needles began to reenter the atmosphere, transmissions weakened. Still, West Ford 2 proved this strategy could work, if only briefly.


After its 1963 deployment, Project West Ford was cancelled for two reasons. The project's first fatal bullet was actually shot in 1962 with the launch of Telstar 1, the first modern active communications satellite. West Ford's needles were passive, meaning they simply reflected signals to and from Earth. The rapidly advancing technology of the Space Age resulted in active systems becoming more popular. The second and lesser reason was protests not only from American scientists but scientists and astronomers around the world demanding the US be held accountable for its creation of space debris. This actually resulted in a provision included in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Other projects like West Ford included the 1946 Project Diana, in which the US Army Signal Corps bounced radar signals off the moon, and Project Echo, NASA's communications balloon satellite.


Telstar 1 satellite (Bell Labs)


Although Project West Ford seems like a silly idea today, it arose at a time where the concept of space debris was not understood and barely even developed— by the beginning of 1963, only 26 satellites were in orbit. Additionally, the threat of one crashing into another was minor compared to the threat of global communism. The concerns about space junk and the disruption of Earth-based astronomical observation caused by the project's needles are still alive and well today, now surrounding satellite constellations such as SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Kuiper. 60 years later, needles that did not deploy correctly are still orbiting the Earth in clumps and are being tracked by NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office. As of March 2020, 36 clumps were known to still be in orbit, making them some of the oldest man-made objects in space [3]. A West Ford satellite exhibit is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.


Graphic of space debris in Earth's orbit (European Space Agency)


Project West Ford was an experiment to create an artificial ionosphere above Earth to carry long-range radio broadcasts without interruption. It was a success, not only proving such a theory could be effectively implemented, but in raising awareness in the new problem of space debris. Deemed obsolete by the emergence of active satellites, the West Ford needles remain a tiny footnote in the history books of American space exploration. Thanks for reading and be sure to like, share, and subscribe!



[1] A dipole antenna has two poles.

[2] LC 1-2 is now Space Launch Complex 3 East (SLC-3E).

[3] The oldest is the long-defunct Vanguard 2 satellite placed in orbit by the US in 1958 where it will remain another few hundred years.



Bibliography

  • Hanson, Joe. “The Forgotten Cold War Plan That Put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth.” Wired, Conde Nast, 13 Aug. 2013, www.wired.com/2013/08/project-west-ford/.

  • Martin, Donald, et al. SatMagazine, Apr. 2008, www.satmagazine.com/story.php?number=1617430031.

  • Ward, William W, and Franklin W Floyd. Thirty Years of Space Communications Research and Development at Lincoln Laboratory. history.nasa.gov/SP-4217/ch8.htm.

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