Illustration for article titled That time the US Air Force tried to put a copper ring around the Earth

Joe Hanson of Wired has penned a fascinating article chronicling Project West Ford, a bizarre Cold War plan to put a ring of copper around the Earth — a "perfect, if odd, example of the Cold War paranoia and military mentality at work in America’s early space program."


Top image: Ron Miller.

During the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense became increasingly worried about the unreliability — and vulnerability — of its undersea cables and over-the-horizon radio. This was before the Internet, of course, so a targeted Soviet attack on America's communications infrastructure could have been catastrophic.


But as Hanson writes, the U.S. military came up with a rather interesting solution — one that came very close to being actualized:

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.

Today it’s hard to imagine a time where filling space with millions of tiny metal projectiles was considered a good idea. But West Ford was spawned before men had set foot in space, when generals were in charge of NASA’s rockets, and most satellites and spacecraft hadn’t flown beyond the drafting table. The agency operated under a “Big Sky Theory.” Surely space is so big that the risks of anything crashing into a stray bit of space junk were miniscule compared to the threat of communism.

Be sure to read the rest of Hanson's account as you may be surprised to learn how far the project actually progressed. In fact, there are pieces of copper needles from this project still in orbit today!

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