NASA: On millions of teeny-tiny copper hairs and orbital debris

50 years on, these miniscule copper wires still float in orbit

Imagine 500 million short copper wires - no longer than the tip of your index finger -- floating in space creating what amounts to an antenna belt that could be used to send messages and conduct other space communications research.

That would describe the 1960s era Project Space Needles or Project West Ford as it was sometimes called that NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last undertook in 1963 which saw the blasting of millions of those copper hairs into space.

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NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office this month did a "Where are they now" look at those copper wires and said that after 50 years, some of them indeed still make up a small amount of orbital debris.

From NASA: "A post-mission investigation concluded that only 25-45% of the planned 480 million dipoles dispersed properly. The others were believed to have remained in clumps, which were later discovered by the U.S. Space Surveillance  Network (SSN). Although still strongly affected by solar radiation pressure, these clumps did not decay as rapidly as the individual needles. Today, 46 clumps remain in Earth orbit.  Only nine of the clumps are currently in orbits with perigees below 2000km. Data collected during observations in the mid-1990s suggest that a moderate population of small debris resides in orbits above 2500km. It has been suggested that these debris represent small clumps of needles from the first Project West Ford mission in 1961.  Eventually, only seven small debris (0.06 - 0.6 m radar cross-section), which are believed to be associated with the experiment,  were cataloged by the SSN. All are still in orbit."

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When it was launched into orbit onboard two Atlas Agena launch vehicles - the millions hair-like copper wires formed a belt of dipole antennas, NASA wrote.  MIT's Lincoln Laboratory then sent messages coast to coast via the orbiting copper needles between Camp Parks and Millstone at Westford, Massachusetts (hence the name Project West Ford). A tracking system called Haystack was a state-of-the-art radar for Project Needles and other experiments.  According to NASA at the time of its dedication in 1964, Haystack was one of only three large antennas conducting radar astronomy research on a regular basis.

While the advent of satellites obviated the need for Project needles its legacy lives on, NASA said.

NASA notes that the more important legacy of Project West Ford can still  be found in international policies,  including  the first major United Nations accord  on activities in outer space that calls for  international consultations before undertaking  an experiment which might cause "potentially  harmful interference with activities of other  State Parties in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space." Following the  failed first Project West Ford mission, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of  the International Council of Scientific Unions  (ICSU) established the Consultative Group  of Potentially Harmful Effects  of Space Experiments. That  group evolved into today's Panel  on Potentially Environmentally  Detrimental Activities in Space  (PEDAS), which is the home of  COSPAR discussions on orbital debris.

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