Project West Ford – Space Pollution

Orbital Debris
Orbital Debris
[click to enlarge]
Recently I researched orbital mechanics, space debris, the orbits of the ISS and the Hubble, in order to write a proper review for Gravity.

The image on the left shows the locations of tracked space debris.

Then I came across Project West Ford, something I had never heard of before.

I might note that Project West Ford is not included in this image.

Project West Ford (also known as Westford Needles and Project Needles) was a test carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory on behalf of the United States Military in 1961 and 1963 to create an artificial ionosphere above the Earth. They did this to solve a major weakness that had been identified in U.S. military communications.

During the Cold War in the sixties and into the seventies, international communications were either sent through undersea cables or bounced off the natural ionosphere. I remember how expensive phone calls to Europe were when I first came to America in 1974. I couldn’t afford them.

In those days, the U.S. Military was worried that the Soviets might cut the underwater cables, forcing the unpredictable ionosphere to be the only means of communication with overseas forces.

Somebody had the brilliant idea of placing 480 million copper dipole antennas into orbit in a huge ring.

I am using the word brilliant while being facetious.

Yes, apparently a ring of 480 million needles of about 1.78cm (about three quarters of an inch) was orbiting the earth at a height between 3,500 and 3,800 kilometers above the earth – and presumably is still there.

The antennas are 1.78cm (about three quarters of an inch) long needles. The first launch was done on October 21, 1961 when a payload of 75 pounds of the needles was deployed. This attempt failed because the needles didn’t disperse in orbit.

The second launch on May 9, 1963, was eventually successful, and radio transmissions were carried by the man-made ring. The technology was ultimately shelved, partially when modern communications satellites were introduced.

The final results of this experiment were never disclosed.

Scientists throughout the world were protesting for a number of reasons. They said that the ring would interfere with astronomical observations. At the time they were not as worried about space junk as we are now.

There were articles that explained that sunlight pressure would cause the dipoles to only remain in orbit for only approximately three years. The international protest ultimately resulted in a consultation provision included in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

I have so many questions, I don’t know where to start:

  1. There is apparently a ring of 480 million needles orbiting the earth. Did they really all deorbit after a few years?
  2. Why do we never hear about this?
  3. What happened to the first batch that didn’t disperse? Is there a swarm still orbiting?
  4. If the final ring has 480 million object, and the failed deployment has that many again, there are a billion of those things out there?
  5. Can sunlight pressure really put enough pressure on these objects to deflect them from such a high orbit?
  6. If sunlight pressure really can do that, is the ring now widely dispersed and huge?

If they didn’t deorbit, they will be there practically forever, or at least all of human existence, getting in the way of space travel in the future.

Perhaps I didn’t research deeply enough, but I can’t find answers to my questions. If any astronomy buff or orbital mechanics engineer reads this, please comment and set me straight.

3 thoughts on “Project West Ford – Space Pollution

  1. Mary Barnes

    Solar wind is strong. Rememer that the Messenger probe around Mercury used it to make course corrections, and calculations of the trajectories of interplanetary spacecraft have to include the effects of solar wind. It is extremely unlikely that any of the individual little needles remained in orbit after 10 years. BUT. thanks to a design flaw, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of clumps of the needles still in orbit. The gel that surrounded the needles was supposed to evaporate quickly in vacuum, dispersing the needles in a thin cloud. But the design allowed the needles to touch each other, and once they hit vacuum, the metal-on-metal contact probably welded some of the needles into larger clumps.

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