Project Westford: The Plan to Give Earth a Ring

Westford needles, compared to a postage stamp.

Westford needles, compared to a postage stamp.

Today we take rapid telecommunications for granted. Phones and computers can link us up with people on the other side of the world in an instant. We demand this unprecedented amount of connectivity as a matter of course and heaven forbid if any event–natural or man made–interrupt it.

With this system so ubiquitous now, the thought that not long ago people lived without it is mind boggling. Fifty years ago the technology was science fiction. This was before the network of satellites that makes so much of our rapid communication possible today was in place. In a climate of paranoia, with the threat of nuclear war looming over the world, US planners had a problem–namely, the lack of reliable communications would make it difficult to coordinate far flung US forces should the worst happen. Long range radio communication relied on bouncing signals off the ionosphere, a fairly unreliable system at best and one that could be disrupted by a big enough nuclear attack. The US military needed something more reliable. To achieve this, the US military initiated Project Westford, which would in effect give earth an artificial ring of copper needles that could be used to bounce radio signals off of.

 

Rings Like Saturn

Project Westford consisted of two launches one conducted October 21, 1961 and the second two years later on May 9, 1963. Each launch vehicle carried special canisters filled with millions of tiny copper wires .7in long and .0007in in diameter. While individually tiny, the needles, a planned 480 million of them, would form a band orbiting 2200 miles above earth. Special installations on Earth could then bounce radio signal off the ring.

The first mission reached its intended orbit, but the needles failed to deploy properly. The needles were embedded in naphthalene gel that was supposed to evaporate as soon as it left the launch vehicle. However, the design allowed the needles to come in contact with each other, which caused them to clump. To be exact, they formed about seven clumps that remain in orbit today.

The second launch in 1963 was more successful, releasing  between 120-215 million needles into orbit. The needles were expected to remain in orbit for about two years before solar radiation pressures pushed them into the atmosphere, after which they would presumably be replaced by subsequent missions of the project became permanent. Many of the needles from the second launch feel back to earth, but about one hundred and forty-four objects associated with launch two, presumably clumps, remain in orbit today.

 

Criticisms and obsolescence

Astronomers were critical of Project Westford from the beginning. They feared that the ring of copper would interfere with observations from both radio and optical telescope arrays. there was also fear that the dipole band would interfere with satellites already in place. It was due to this pressure that project designers designed the dipole belt to decay relatively rapidly in its orbit. They did not anticipate the clumping problems mentioned above.

The partial success of the second mission allowed scientists at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the brains behind the project, to test the system. Using the partial ring, they were able to transmit up to 20kbps of voice and frequency shift key data from Westford, MA and Camp Parks, near Pleasanton, CA. Four months later, when the belt had extended, the capacity of the transmission dropped to a measly 100bits per second

With the less than stellar performance, a passive system of long distance communications started to look less attractive. In 1962, the first modern communications satellite, Telstar, was launched. It transmitted television signals across the Atlantic for two hours a day. It proved that active systems were more reliable and higher capacity than the passive system envisioned by Project Westford. The copper ring was obsolete before it could be fully implemented.

However, the legacy of Westford lives on. the remnants of the project still orbit far overhead. today, in part because of experiments like Westford, deliberately polluting the space around earth would be considered wildly irresponsible. Fifty years ago, the US operated under the Big Sky principle, the belief that space is big and it wouldn’t be likely for anything to bump into each other floating around in all that space. These days, that isn’t taken to be true.

Westford helped to spur a change in international space policy. this included a UN accord that called for nations looking to embark on potentially messy experiments like Westford to consult with other countries whose interests–scientific, military, or otherwise–might be effected. With these policies in place, it isn’t likely anyone else will try to put a ring around the Earth anytime soon.

 

Sources:

Hanson, Joe. “The Forgotten Cold War Plan that put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth.” Wired.com. August 13, 2013. Wired. May 15, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2013/08/project-west-ford/

MacLellan, Donald. “Looking Back: Space Needles.” ll.mit.edu. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. May 15, 2014. https://www.ll.mit.edu/publications/labnotes/Looking_Back_3.pdf

Martin, Donald. Anderson, Paul. Bartamian, Lucy. “the History of Satellites: West Ford.” SatMagazine.com April 2005. SatMagazine by SatNews. May 15, 2014. http://www.satmagazine.com/story.php?number=1617430031

“Westford Needles: where are they Now?” NASA. Orbited Debris Quarterly News. Volume 17, issue 4. October 2013.

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