Project West Ford: Earth's Saturn-Like Ring of Dipoles
do you think of the USAF's plan to deploy a band of millions of tiny
dipole antennas into orbit around Earth for communications support?
Because over-the-horizon (OTH) radio communications rely on the upper
atmosphere being conductive to reflect radio waves, it is essential
that there always be something for bending signals back to Earth rather
than allowing them to escape into space. The ionosphere has many
identified regions that do a good job of reflecting signals of certain
wavelengths during particular times of day and under special atmospheric
conditions cause by solar activity. There are times when reliable OTH
communications are not possible because of severe
coronal mass ejections (CMEs), high meteoric activity, and even
terrestrial events like major volcanic eruptions. Even predictable variation
in ionosphere characteristics like the diurnal blending of the F1 and
F2 layers into a single F layer complicates emergency and strategic
communications planning that is vital to national defense.
order to mitigate the risk, the U.S. Air Force decided to launch payloads
consisting of millions - eventually even billions - of 3/4-inch-long
wires would encircle the planet in a flat ring shape to act as half-wave
reflector dipoles at 8 GHz. Project West Ford (aka Project Needles)
was born. Astronomers opposed the project immediately because as envisioned
the ring would interfere with both optical and radio observations. Their
objections were duly noted and filed for later reference. To make a
long story short, the first launch failed to properly deploy the wires,
but the second was successful and served its intended purpose. While
not technically in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at 2,100 miles altitude, the
wires' orbits did eventually degrade and the particles burned up in
the atmosphere during reentry (nothing spectacular).
wires were encased in a naphthalene gel that was supposed to evaporate
in the vacuum of space, allowing the needles to disperse into a thin
cloud (like Saturn's rings). Unfortunately, a chemical reaction between
the naphthalene and copper metal-to-metal contact may have caused clumps
of wires to form, thereby reducing the effective area of the reflective
ring. In 2001, the European Space Agency (ESA) published a report titled
of Copper Needle Clusters rom the West Ford Dipole Experiment" postulating
the possibility that many are still orbiting the planet, and indeed,
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) still tracks objects
believed to be related to Project West Ford.
While Project West
Ford did get off the ground literally, it never did figuratively. Some
people believe the USAF cancelled the program because of the bad press
it received worldwide. Headlines like "U.S.A. Dirties Space" in the
USSR's newspaper Pravda, and a major story in the
Harvard Crimson were common. Oh, this all happened
in the early 1960s, when artificial communications satellites began
populating our sky, so the metal wires were no longer deemed necessary.
The rest, as it is said, is history.
What's old is new again,
though. In 2002, at the beginning of the megabuck Global Warming (all
hail) industry, a trio of scientists published a paper titled, "Earth
Rings for Planetary Environment Control." In it they proposed deploying
billions of tiny metallic reflectors into space to prevent the sun's
rays from reaching Earth. A side benefit of facilitating global communications
was mentioned (pages 8 and 13). Fortunately, we are still not blanketed
by a layer of metal, but let the right politician get paid enough money
and it will eventually get done.
to RF Cafe visitor Joe B. for sending me this link to "The
Forgotten Cold War Plan That Put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth"
on the Wired website. It is definitely worth reading.
West Ford" by NASA
Needles" aka "Project West Ford" history by NASA
Posted August 17, 2013