What Peculiar Objects Were Launched Into Space During the 1960s to Facilitate Military Communication?
Answer: Copper Needles
Prior to the advent of modern satellite communication networks, global communications were carried out either by lengthy undersea cables or by bouncing communications off the Earth’s ionosphere. During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Military became increasingly concerned that Soviet agents would damage undersea cables, leaving them dependent on the less-than-predictable ionosphere as their primary mode of international communication.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Military enlisted the help of researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to help craft an artificial ionosphere around the planet that could be used for consistent military communications—the project was known as Project West Ford.
To create the artificial ionosphere necessary for the project, 480 million tiny 1.78 cm copper needles were launched into orbit. These needles were placed in medium Earth orbit between 2,200-2,400 miles high at 96 and 87 degree inclinations, and functioned as tiny dipole antennas.
While such an ambitious project seems like it would be destined for failure, the copper-based artificial ionosphere actually worked. For several months, the military was able to successfully bounce communication signals off the massive ring of copper needles. Eventually, the needles began to spread out and the effectiveness of the system was compromised.
Despite the success, the project was shelved after the initial deployment for two primary reasons: advances in satellite technology were rapidly rendering the radio/ionosphere communication model obsolete and there was widespread protest in the scientific community over the potential impact of tampering with the Earth’s atmosphere. These protests ultimately led to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which outlined, among other things, prohibitions against the militarization of space.
Image courtesy of MIT.