The neurotic fear during the Cold War against enemy attack led the world powers to develop all sorts of extravagant projects to defend themselves and outdo each other. Hypocritically cloaked under the umbrella of scientific research, these preventive measures actually responded to a military emergency. It was in this context that the West Ford Project was developed.
Walter E. Morrow, former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, came up with the idea in 1958. Originally called Project Needless, it consisted of putting into orbit a belt of 1.8 cm long, ultra-thin, filamentary copper dipole antennas to shield U.S. communications. Because what if the Soviet Union decided to sabotage the submarine cables that ensured long-range communication? The country would become dependent on radio communications through the ionosphere, which undergoes various disturbances due to the influence of the Sun. Consequently, the solution lay in creating an antenna belt independent of the ionosphere and unreachable by the Soviets.
Two launches were carried out, both surrounded by controversy due to numerous complaints from scientists, who feared the disruption of astronomical observations. The first was on October 21, 1961. The Midas 4 satellite carried a cylindrical dispenser loaded with millions of dipoles that never propagated because the dispenser mechanism failed. The second occurred on May 9, 1963. The Midas 6 carried almost 500 million needles which left their nest to propagate to 3500 km altitude. The first test transmissions were successful, but success diminished rapidly as the needles dispersed. With the arrival of the first satellites, the West Ford project became obsolete.
And what happened to needles? Millions of them are supposed to have been incinerated on their journey back to Earth, but many still remain in orbit as space debris. The authorities claimed that the filaments would return to Earth in only two years, but they did not count on the fact that the needles could agglomerate and form clusters with the capacity to remain for decades in orbit, as it happened, estimating in tens of thousands the clusters that are still out there.
Hanson, J. (2013). The Forgotten Cold War Plan That Put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth. Wired [online] August 13, available in: https://www.wired.com/2013/08/project-west-ford/
Redacción (1963). Project West Ford. The Harvard Crimson [online] May 24, available in: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1963/5/24/project-west-ford-pfour-hundred-million/
Wiedemann, C., Bendisch, J., Krag, H., Wegener, P., Red, D. (2001). Modeling of copper needle clusters from the West Ford dipole experiments. Space Debris 473, 315-320.