Project West Ford

Brass Tacks

Four hundred million copper wires are now circling the globe in a polar orbit at an altitude of 2300 miles. These "needles" are part of Project West Ford which began in 1958 when it was first suggested by Mr. Walter E. Morrow of M.I.T.'s Lincoln Labs. Morrow planned to place a belt of copper wires above the earth in order to provide a jam-proof, fail-proof, destruction-proof communication system.

At present radio waves are sent over long distances by bouncing them off ionized layers of gas in the earth's atmosphere. Unfortunately, signals from the ionosphere can be jammed, and events such as a large solar flare can cause a radio fadeout by impairing the ionosphere's ability to transmit signals. From a military standpoint, a radio fadeout or jamming could be disastrous in certain situations. Therefore the Air Force supported Morrow's plan, to create a fully reliable global communication system.

In October, 1961, the first attempt to orbit the copper particles was made. However, the package designed to disperse the copper "needles" into the required belt failed to operate properly and all the Air Force got for its money were four or five useless clumps of wire floating around the earth. But two weeks ago Lincoln Labs was given its second chance, and seems to have succeeded. The dispenser package was mounted piggyback on another Air Force satellite and launched into orbit.

After careful checking to be sure the "needles" package was in proper orbit, radio command was sent to the satellite, activating its dispensing mechanism. Within a day, 50 pounds of copper wire were strewn in a large cloud about the dispenser. As time passes, this cloud will disperse evenly to form a orbiting belt of "needles" roughly five miles wide and 25 miles thick. At present the belt is about 11,500 miles long, and is spreading around the globe at the rate of 1000 miles per day.

Each of the copper wires is .7 inches long and .0007 inches wide. When the dispersion process has ended, there will be roughly 50 wires in every cubic mile of belt. Despite the small size and low density of these wires, their ability to act as individual dipole antennae should make it possible to bounce signals of a specific frequency off the belt. According to J.A. Kessler of Lincoln Labs, theWest Ford experiment is operating on schedule and the results of wave propagation and actual communication experiments have been "quite good." If the "needles" program succeeds, the Air Force may want to put two permanent communication belts in orbit.

Scientists Angered

Since its inception, Project West Ford has met with stiff opposition from astronomers all over the world. In 1961 the International Astronomical Union officially expressed its disapproval of the program. Because of West Ford, both the IAU and the National Academy of Sciences have created "watchdog committees" to help scientists appraise space programs that might impede their research.

Scientists are concerned with West Ford for three reasons. First, the copper wires may interfere directly with the observations of optical and radio astronomers. Furthermore, the present West Ford effort is indicative of the American belief that the sky belongs to Uncle Sam. Thirdly, scientific projects run in the name of national defense are not subjected to the rigorous and open evaluation given to other research projects.

The first objection raised by scientists has little validity. Astronomers admit that they cannot detect the "needles" today. But they argue that the little dipoles will cause real interference if their observational equipment improves as much during the next decade as it has in the past one. However, the copper wires, forced down by pressure from solar radiation, should burn up harmlessly in the lower atmosphere in less than five years.

Although radio astronomers have the most reason for concern, the optical observers are also worried. William Liller, a member of the NAS watchdog group and Professor of Astronomy, has attempted to determine the optical brightness of the copper cloud with the Harvard 61-inch telescope. So far Liller has had no success, but other astronomers have photographed the cloud and have shown that it is not unduly bright.

The objection that the United States is cluttering space is far more serious. Already the U.S. has a poor international reputation for its "behavior in space," due to the Starfish experiment. Project Starfish was one of the nuclear tests conducted at Johnston Island last year. A 1.4 megaton bomb was detonated at an altitude of 250 miles on July 9, injecting radiation into the earth's magnetic field and creating and artificial Van Allen belt. This radiation did not disappear as American scientists predicted--in fact, it has rendered useless three satellites, as well as interfering seriously with the work of radio astronomers.

Starfish is widely regarded as an example of American recklessness in space. As one British member of Parliament put it, the space race should not involve "the spreading of haberdashery all over the place." Astronomers feel they must attack West Ford now, before the U.S. even begins to think of putting up a number of permanent belts.

The third objection is also a very real one. West Ford became a matter of national defense rather than of scientific research, when Morrow turned his project over to the Air Force. Information related to West Ford was classified, and those who believed that the dipoles could not be as effective, say, as Telstar, had to argue with only the scraps of information they could obtain. Many scientists, especially those involved with the space program, are worried that once the government has been sold on an idea, the political and military overtones make criticism impossible.

Sir Bernard Lovell, head of Britain's Jodrell Bank radio observatory, summarized the feelings of many scientists towards Project West Ford: "The damage lies not with this experiment alone, but with the attitude of mind which makes it possible without international agreement and safeguards."