In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States grew increasingly scared that their means of radio communication would be taken out by a solar flare or perhaps by the Soviet Union. Fearing this day that never came, scientists set out on a mission to strengthen the earth’s ionosphere, the region of the earth’s atmosphere that heavily influences radio wave propagation across the planet.
The solution devised by the US was absolutely absurd, more absurd however is that they actually set the plan in place.
In the summer of 1963, the United States placed a gigantic ring of thin copper wire around the earth. As part of Project West Ford, these wires – referred to as needles – were an attempt to add a conductive layer around the earth that would allow for seamless radio wave transmission regardless of conditions in the ionosphere.
In the 1950s, most communication was transferred through undersea cables or electromagnetic waves were bounced off of the earth’s natural ionosphere layer. The ionosphere could be interrupted by solar flares or other possible human interventions, which made it not as reliable as the US government wanted.
A pioneering electrical engineer named Walter E. Morrow at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory devised an ingenious plan, to place a belt of copper wire around the earth. These wires would serve as permanent radio reflectors which would circumvent the common problems with the ionosphere and protect communications from solar flares.
480 million thin copper needles were manufactured and prepared for launch. Each “needle” was 1.8 centimeters long and was less than the width of a human hair. The length of 1.8 centimeters corresponded to half the wavelength of 8 GHz microwaves, which would turn every needled into a dipole antenna. It was expected that the needles would orbit in a layer 3,500 kilometers above the earth.
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The first launch of the needles occurred on October 1961 and ended in a failure. The large number of needles didn’t disperse, rather they clumped together becoming utterly useless for the project. Even with this massive failure, the project continued on until success on May 9, 1963. The West Ford Launch placed 120 to 215 million copper needles in a belt around the earth in polar orbit.
Within a few days, voice transmissions were sent using the needles between California and Massachusetts. Initial data speeds were 20 kilobits per second, which was decent speed at the time. However, for comparison, this is nearly 5,000 times slower than high-speed internet today.
Data speeds quickly dropped and 4 months later the transmission was down to only 100 bits per second, a reduction of 200 times less the speed.
The project was eventually shelved months later as satellite technology continued to solve the problem much more effectively. More than 50 years later, the earth still is surrounded by millions of tiny copper needles, just remnants of this project. Many needles have fallen back to earth but due to their small size, they didn’t burn up and now rest in layers of snow at the poles.
The US succeeded in giving the earth a ring of copper, but it failed in turning this copper ring into a viable means of communication.