Project Needles: not a hipster knitting collective
August 27, 2013 2:56 PM   Subscribe

It's 1963. You're in a cold war with Russia. You want to keep up communication capabilities globally. Communication satellites haven't come into their own. The ionosphere is fickle and jammable. What do you do? You fire 480 million tiny copper wires into space to create an artificial dipole antenna belt around the earth. You call it Project West Ford. It works.

- 1963 Harvard Crimson article on the project
- some further detail from Ward & Floyd's 1989 Thirty Years of Space Communications Research and Development at Lincoln Laboratory
- April, 1961 paper in The Astronomical Journal, Properties of Orbiting Dipole Belts
- January, 1964 Lincoln Labs paper [pdf], Project West Ford Payload Telemetry System
posted by cortex (26 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
How fascinating. I had no idea this occurred, and I'm flabbergasted that it actually worked.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:10 PM on August 27, 2013


If you like that, read about Project Echo, which was basically a giant mylar balloon in space that you could bounce radio communication off of.

Completely passive, it was even simpler than Project West Ford.
posted by Argyle at 3:12 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Wait, isn't this just mining that particular orbit with millions of micro-meteorites? That seems... imprudent.
posted by danny the boy at 3:16 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Danny:

1. The needles massed 40 micrograms each. Even at orbital velocity, they're simply not massive enough to deliver a significant amount of impact energy. You wouldn't want one to hit your spacesuit visor, but that's about it.

2. They mostly re-entered by the 1970s.
posted by cstross at 3:31 PM on August 27, 2013


If there weren't multiple sources, I would have sworn this was an April Fools joke. Is this an example of thinking outside the box or was the box just different then?

Either way, Project West Ford feels like the Cassingle of global communications -- meets the desired need but lost quickly because of ongoing technological advancements.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:33 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I remember reading about this-- but I also remember reading that it didn't work, and that the copper "needles" immediately disappeared and were never heard from again.

Could that have been misinformation?
posted by jamjam at 3:41 PM on August 27, 2013


"After the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev realized that they had come dangerously close to nuclear war."

These rings of wire were the fallback from the fallback if things went really, really bad, as it was just becoming apparent to the political types that despite all the 1950s talk of surviving a nuclear war and prospering, no satellite comm system more complicated was apt to survive.
posted by hank at 3:44 PM on August 27, 2013


I remember reading about this-- but I also remember reading that it didn't work, and that the copper "needles" immediately disappeared and were never heard from again.

From what I read putting the post together, the first launch was a failure; the needles didn't disperse properly at all, and so were useless. The second launch was apparently a total success. So it's possible you just heard about one and not the other.
posted by cortex at 3:51 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlie beats me to it, in terms of danger. The real magic was the fact that they were dipole reflectors.

Related is Meteor burst communication. Ionized gas makes a pretty decent signal reflector, and meteor make such as they burn up. The problem is the gas trail doesn't last very long, so you have to detect it and send a message very quickly - thus, burst.

All of these are far closer than Geosync orbit, and in radio, distance is evil. Though, with a suitably strong transmitter, sensitive receiver, and a encoding good at getting signal from the noise, you can do EME.

This is, BTW, nowhere near the craziest thing we did in the Cold War.
posted by eriko at 3:56 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wired recently had an article about this too, interesting stuff
posted by zeoslap at 3:56 PM on August 27, 2013


2. They mostly re-entered by the 1970s.

They fell in a burning ring of fire, I imagine.
posted by yoink at 4:02 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is completely crazy, yet it worked?!

This is, BTW, nowhere near the craziest thing we did in the Cold War.

Go on...
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:25 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Twerking is actually a recently-declassified 1958 military experiment in weaponized kinesthetics.
posted by cortex at 4:32 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Go On...

I recommend putting the phrase "lost himalayan plutonium" into the GOOG and reading the first few articles. Operation Hat and its lost SNAP with 5 pounds of in the wind (and maybe the water) Plutonium FTW.
posted by localroger at 4:34 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I never meant to cause you any punctures.
I never meant to cause you any pain.
I only wanted to one time beat the Commies.
I only wanted to drown the Commies in the dipole rain.

Dipole rain, dipole rain.
Dipole rain, dipole rain.
Dipole rain, dipole rain.

I only wanted to see you bathed in copper in the dipole rain.

I never wanted to be your Project West Ford.
I only wanted to be some kind of friend.
Baby I could never wire you from the motherland.
It's such a shame our orbit had to end.

Dipole rain, dipole rain.
Dipole rain, dipole rain.
Dipole rain, dipole rain.

I only wanted to free you underneath the dipole rain.

Honey I know, I know, I know ions are charging.
It's time we all reach out for some kind of clue,
That means you too.
You say you want a circuit,
But you can't seem to make up your field.
I think you better feel my magnet,
And let me guide you through the dipole rain.

Dipole rain, dipole rain.
Dipole rain, dipole rain...

(If you know what I'm singing about up here
C'mon cover your damn head.)

Dipole rain, dipole rain.

I only want to free you, only want to be you.

I only wanted to see everything you ever do
Thanks to the dipole rain.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:55 PM on August 27, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm guessing that this mode of communication could have been used by both sides. Beats the tin can and a piece of string.
posted by arcticseal at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2013


The article suggests that this would have played hell with radio astronomy if fully implemented. I wonder if that was ever a problem.
posted by double block and bleed at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2013


jamjam: "I remember reading about this-- but I also remember reading that it didn't work, and that the copper "needles" immediately disappeared and were never heard from again.

Could that have been misinformation?"


I saw a short 'oddities' note in a Reader's Digest 30-odd years ago, which mentioned the US toyed with the idea of sending a block of camphor with embedded wire into orbit during the Cold War - the idea was that in space the camphor would sublimate and release a wire mesh to bounce radio signals off. Apparently they tried it, the block of camphor disappeared, and the article ended with something to the effect of 'if it had worked, it would have set back America's domination of space 50 years - how silly we were!'

I've been curious about that ever since I read it as a kid, & over the last 20 years occasionally searched the internet to see if it was a true story (I may even have mentioned it here before). When I first saw this a few days ago, I recognised it immediately…
posted by Pinback at 5:38 PM on August 27, 2013


This reminds me of another great Cold War project: balloon-mounted microphones in the atomospheric sound channel to listen for nuclear tests on the other side of the planet.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:29 PM on August 27, 2013


Go on...

Previously, the Flying Crowbar
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:38 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


In case anyone's curious, the amount of potential energy in a single strand, at orbital velocity, is 0.8J. What that would mean to an object or person struck by one, I'm not sure…
posted by WaylandSmith at 7:43 PM on August 27, 2013


the amount of potential energy in a single strand, at orbital velocity, is 0.8J.

That's like getting hit by a tennis ball travelling 18 km/h (11mph).
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:49 PM on August 27, 2013


While very cool, this sounds vaguely like something we would resort to after having Taught The Machines How To Fight.
posted by cacofonie at 7:55 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you like that, read about Project Echo, which was basically a giant mylar balloon in space that you could bounce radio communication off of.

Until the advent the space station, that was the coolest satellite sighting of my life -- and I can remember seeing Sputnik 1. I seem to recall that, like the station, Echo was launched in a west to east orbit, so it really moved across the sky. And it was so damn bright, as bright as Jupiter or Venus, and it flashed, to boot. Way cool.
posted by y2karl at 8:42 PM on August 27, 2013


I entered the phrase "lost himalayan plutonium" into the google and the only hit I got was this thread.

The mystery deepens.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:42 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Inside the CIA Mission to Haul Plutonium Up the Himalayas.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:25 PM on August 27, 2013


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