Monday, August 03, 2009

Project West Ford

It was known as "Project West Ford" or "the West Ford Experiment" and it is the reason that there are about 5 copper needles per square kilometer of soil in the arctic. The scale of the project was enormous. On whole it was wildly experimental, and extraordinarily unorthodox. The idea grew from a 1958 MIT study on the use of dipoles as a theoretical alternative to satellites. This was an episode of the Twilight Zone gone awry and here is how it went.

During the cold war our military was seeking a less-vulnerable way to transmit international communications. Land lines were exposed to attack, and shortwave transmissions were exposed to interference of both natural and man-made sources. They wanted something better. Or at least something else, a third option. The MIT Lincoln Laboratory came up with a solution worthy of science-fiction. It was called Project West Ford. More here.

The idea was to deploy millions of tiny needles into a polar orbit. The needles spread into a thick loop around the earth reflecting would reflect microwaves to carry voice and teletype messages. This is the sort of idea that looks good on paper. The 21 millimeter long needles act as dipole antennas. They were thinner than a human hair. These minuscule dipole antennas supported the Project West Ford's parabolic dish at Millstone Hill in Westford, MA. It operated on 8.3 GHz at 40 watts. It had a sister site at Camp Parks in Pleasanton, CA with a similar configuration.

It ultimately took two tries. In 1961 on October 21st the USAF launched MIDAS 4 which carried up a canister of tiny needles. That canister did not deploy properly and the needles failed to disperse. So in 1963 they tried again, on the ATLAS AGENA B. That canister did adequately disperse the needles, but not all of them. Many remained all clumped together. But those that dispersed did so correctly into a polar orbit between 2,000 miles and about 2300 miles high between 96 and 87 degree inclinations. It circled the earth every 166 minutes. After the initial dispersal data rates of 50,00 bits per second were achieved. 40 days later, after the circle had spread out around the earth in a belt-shape, data rates dropped to about 100 bits per second. They sent teletype at 50 words a minute using about a quarter of the available bandwidth. I know that doesn't sound like much but try to remember.. this is before the Internet. The last attempted experiments with the belt were in 1965.

Objections came in throughout the process. Some astronomers objected to the plan as it promised an array of signals hat could interfere with research. After the 1963 launch, Russia was pissed. The soviet paper Pravda called us space litterbugs. It became fodder for the generally sour discourse over nuclear testing and saber-rattling. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson actually told the UN that sunlight pressure would cause the dipoles to only remain in orbit for approximately 3 years. In 1987 NORAD claimed about 60% of the mass was still in orbit.