At the height of the Cold War, a thin line separated science from science fiction, as scientists raced to develop new doomsday weapons. The nuclear powers set off bombs high in the atmosphere, close to the earth, and underground. Often, just to see what would happen.
One such test — called Teak — devastated the ionosphere, or upper sky, high above the remote Johnston Island in the Pacific on Aug. 1, 1958. Communications were disrupted for hours after the blast because the ionosphere could no longer be used to relay high-frequency radio signals. Pentagon officials worried that any similar nuclear blast during a conflict with the Soviet Union could sever their global communications. So, they began a search for a way around the problem.
Thus began one of the strangest scientific experiments of the Cold War. In 1961 and 1963, US scientists blasted huge clouds of tiny metal particles into low orbit to create an artificial surface off which the military could bounce radio signals. “Project West Ford” was named after a small Massachusetts town of Westford, where telescopes were trained on the heavens to monitor the experiment.
Even today, some of the detritus from Project West Ford is still orbiting the planet, a historical remnant that has not quite faded from view. Unintentionally, these particles also launched a heated discussion over what is now called space junk. Concerns about the project sparked an international outcry and prompted the first discussions about how to keep near space free of pollution. It’s a discussion that will be more and more relevant as thousands of new satellites, from a growing roster of space-faring countries and companies, take up residence in the heavens over the coming years.
Soon after West Ford, satellites solved the problem of long-distance communication. But before they arrived, scientists had to pursue alternative ways to bounce radio signals into space and back.
Skip Crilly, an expert on radio communications at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, recalls that there were a lot of “wild ideas” at the time, including huge antennas that were never built, and signals bounced off the moon. Planners eventually settled on the creation of a belt of tiny needles, made of half a billion pieces of copper. These filaments were almost too small to see — 0.7 inches long and 0.0007 inches wide. But a huge number of them, stretched out in a belt 30 miles long, above the earth — was enough to act as a relay.
The science behind the idea was more impressive than its first name — “Project Needles.” Eventually “Needles” was renamed “Project West Ford,” at a time when Massachusetts scientists were deeply involved in air defense systems, particularly through MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. An early test of the concept failed in October 1961 and set off an international outcry, as astronomers around the world objected to casually dropping half a billion objects into the pristine sky. A distinguished British astronomer, Fred Hoyle, called the effort “a major intellectual crime.”
But the planners were determined to try again. On May 9, 1963 they were more successful. An Atlas rocket brought the needles to an altitude of 3,600 kilometers and let them drift across the sky. For a few weeks, the copper belt worked intermittently as a relay. Then, the signal weakened. Still, a point had been proved.
Soon, satellites made these tiny needles obsolete. Most of them fell back to earth and lie buried in ice at the poles. But they have not been entirely forgotten. A few needles are still up there, floating around in clumps — a survey in 2013 counted 46 clumps, tiny reminders of a distant, nervous era.
West Ford was not exactly a success. Even on its best days, it did not work very well. And it created as many liabilities as it avoided. As Skip Crilly notes, it not only irritated astronomers, but it also might have led to other problems. Signals that used the needles likely could have been jammed, and it might have blocked our ability to see incoming missiles. “The swarm might have been a nightmare,” he concludes.
But sometimes mistakes lead to better outcomes — an important lesson in science.
After arousing the ire of the international community, the United States agreed to the Outer Space Treaty in 1967. Fifty years later, it has proved its worth. Because of West Ford, a provision was added that allowed nations to complain about excess space junk. That treaty will become more and more relevant in the years to come, as China and India rush ahead with space plans of their own, not to mention the burgeoning private space industry.
Today, there are some 170 million pieces of debris floating around the planet, posing a hazard to orbiting satellites and other space vehicles. About 670,000 of them are larger than 1 centimeter. Since 1989, the Lincoln Lab has used several of its radar systems used to track this hazardous material.
But what to do about the cloud is a more vexing problem — and the solutions often resemble the science fiction schemes that sent much of the debris up there in the first place.
This summer, a company in Japan announced it was developing a way to use magnets to catch the debris and force it to burn up in the atmosphere. A Swiss company wants to push debris further out into space. A British firm imagines moving junk with a solar sail. NASA and the European Space Agency have toyed with the idea of harpooning space junk.
National antagonism may have been behind the cluttering of space, but it might just be an international effort that finally cleans it up. As the world’s nations wrestle with different kinds of problem on earth, the story of West Ford and the Outer Space Treaty offers a faint particle of hope.
Ted Widmer is a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.