6.5.06

Earth's Artificial Ring: Project West Ford

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At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, all international communications were either sent through undersea cables or bounced off of the natural ionosphere. The United States military was concerned that the Soviets (or other "Hostile Actors") might cut those cables, forcing the unpredictable ionosphere to be the only means of communication with overseas forces. The Space Age had just begun, and the communications satellites we rely on today existed only in the sketches of futurists.

Nevertheless, the US Military looked to space to help solve their communications weakness. Their solution was to create an artificial ionosphere. In May 1963, the US Air Force launched 480 million tiny copper needles that briefly created a ring encircling the entire globe. They called it Project West Ford. The engineers behind the project hoped that it would serve as a prototype for two more permanent rings that would forever guarantee their ability to communicate across the globe.

The project itself was a virtually unqualified success. Though the first launch ended in failure, the second launch went without a hitch on May 10th, 1963. Inside the West Ford spacecraft, the needles were packed densely together in blocks made of a napthalene gel that would rapidly evaporate in space. This entire package of needles weighed only 20 kg. After being released, the hundreds of millions of copper needles gradually spread throughout their entire orbit over a period of two months. The final donut-shaped cloud was 15 km wide and 30 km thick and encircled the globe at an altitude of 3700 km.

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