Science & Technology

The US Once Launched Millions of Copper Needles Into Space

When it comes to imagining new technology, the sky is the limit. No point in letting your scheme get bogged down by reality when you're just brainstorming. But sometimes, ideas that really shouldn't make it out of the brainstorming session escape into the real world. Or worse — into low-Earth orbit. This is the story of how the U.S. once launched millions of copper needles into space on purpose.

A Wire in the Sky

For a couple of months in 1963, the Earth had one thing in common with the planet Saturn: a ring. That came down to an effort to find a novel communication strategy. Back then, the more that long-distance communications advanced, the more potential problems they ran into. In the 1950s, you could get a message across the ocean or to the other side of a continent in a matter of minutes thanks to giant undersea cables and over-the-horizon radio that bounced the signal off of the ionosphere. But underwater cables could be disrupted by enemy agents (this was during the Cold War, after all), and long-distance radio signals could be reduced to static by both terrestrial and solar storms. And that's why the U.S. decided to try a new method of long-range communication: an Earth-sized ring of copper to conduct transmissions fast as lightning, no matter the weather.

Project West Ford dispersal system

It was supposed to work like this: A rocket would dump hundreds of millions of tiny copper filings into low-Earth orbit, giving the radio signals something else to bounce off of besides the ionosphere. And it worked! Sort of. Within days of the mission, communications were being sent from California to the East Coast at a then-staggering speed of 20 kilobytes per second.

In short, the mission was a rousing success. For about four months. The benefits of the copper ring wore off quickly as the needles began to fall out of orbit, or worse, clump together. And that's where the real trouble started.

Project West Ford needles

200-Million Needle Pileup

When you're going around the planet at 5 miles per second (8 kilometers per second), a tiny piece of debris can have a big impact. Even if they're only a centimeter across, bits of space junk can severely damage and even destroy advanced spacecraft. Of course, the copper filaments weren't very large — only 0.7 inches (1.8 centimeters) long, and about a quarter of the width of a human hair. But the funny thing about metal in a vacuum is that it will instantly weld to any identical metal, no heat required. That means that all of those tiny copper wires that didn't crash land at the North and South poles long ago have the potential to fuse with each other to become major obstacles today. In 2001, a study suggested that the several dozen clumps still in orbit were likely to stay right there for decades to come. So next time Elon Musk sends a Roadster into orbit, he should keep an eye out for any errant shards of copper on the way.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas March 8, 2018

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