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Space The Military Communications United States

Cold War Plan Tried To Put a Copper Ring Around the Earth 184

Posted by Soulskill
from the now-let's-wrap-the-moon-in-tinfoil dept.
Wired has the story of a plan enacted in the early 1960s by the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense that had the goal of safeguarding the country's long-range communications from Russian interference. The solution they came up with wasn't easy, but it was straightforward: launch hundreds of millions of thin copper wires into orbit in the hopes of forming an artificial ring around the planet. From the article: "Project Needles, as it was originally known, was Walter E. Morrow’s idea. He suggested that if Earth possessed a permanent radio reflector in the form of an orbiting ring of copper threads, America’s long-range communications would be immune from solar disturbances and out of reach of nefarious Soviet plots. Each copper wire was about 1.8 centimeters in length. This was half the wavelength of the 8 GHz transmission signal beamed from Earth, effectively turning each filament into what is known as a dipole antenna. The antennas would boost long-range radio broadcasts without depending on the fickle ionosphere. ... On May 9, 1963, a second West Ford launch successfully dispersed its spindly cargo approximately 3,500 kilometers above the Earth, along an orbit that crossed the North and South Pole. Voice transmissions were successfully relayed between California and Massachusetts, and the technical aspects of the experiment were declared a success. As the dipole needles continued to disperse, the transmissions fell off considerably, although the experiment proved the strategy could work in principle."
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Cold War Plan Tried To Put a Copper Ring Around the Earth

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  • Sooo.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:09PM (#44557979)

    So what you're saying is, we launched a crap-ton of space junk into orbit to test the theory that our leaders will buy anything as long as it's for the war on terr--er, communism. Sorry. Got my time periods mixed up there for a sec.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Lumpy (12016)

      Close. If we were to launch ALL of the copper found on the earth, every last scrap of it, we could do what they wanted, problem is there would be no copper left to make radios to transmit or receive with. This was the problem, Yes it "worked" but the scale needed would have required global strip mining and launching every ounce of copper that this planet has in it's crust.

      • But...but...it is so we can fight those evil commies.

      • Re:Sooo.... (Score:4, Informative)

        by ZombieBraintrust (1685608) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @06:12PM (#44558653)

        Close. If we were to launch ALL of the copper found on the earth, every last scrap of it, we could do what they wanted, problem is there would be no copper left to make radios to transmit or receive with. This was the problem, Yes it "worked" but the scale needed would have required global strip mining and launching every ounce of copper that this planet has in it's crust.

        Citation needed. From what I read it seams they did a succussfull test that formed a belt. I think your thinking of an actual unbroken wire going around the earth. Instead they launched short segments of wire. There was some distance between each bit.

        Early in May, 1963 a package containing 4.8×108copper dipoles, each 0.00178 cm in diameter and 1.78 cm in length, was placed into a nearly circular, nearly polar orbit at a mean altitude of 3650 km

        http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?reload=true&tp=&arnumber=1444922&isnumber=31060 [ieee.org]

        • Glad to see the /. moderating system working so well. /sarcasm
        • by Lumpy (12016)

          Mathematics is all the citation I need.

          If you think you can have a permanent ring at 3650km up, then you need to research orbatal physics. just the sheer area needed to cover at a stable orbital point for a ring to stay up there on it's own for a short time, like a decade.. would require an immense amount of metal even in 1.78cm lengths. I actually think I am under estimating it, and they will need to launch every ounce of aluminum along with every ounce of copper on the planet into space to form this r

          • circumference of the earth: 40,075 Km
            diameter of the earth: 12756 Km
            orbit distance: 3650 km
            New diameter: 20056(157.22% bigger)
            New circumference: pi * D = 63007.78(157.22% bigger)
            Number of dipoles released in 1963: 480000000
            Number of dipoles per Km: 7618
            Number of dipoles per meter: 7.618
            The experiment worked untill the dipoles started to drift east and west away from the perfect circle. This increased the distance between the dipoles.
          • diameter of dipole: .000178cm
            radius: .000089cm
            length: 1.78cm
            volume of each wire: pi * r^2 * h = 4.42 * 10^-8 cm^3
            number of wires: 4.8 * 10^8
            volume of all wire: 4.8 * 4.42 = 21.216 cm^3
            density of copper: 8.96 gcm^3
            mass of all wire used in 1963: 190.095 grams
    • Re:Sooo.... (Score:4, Funny)

      by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:34PM (#44558275) Journal

      The US is like a billionaire who can't find enough ways to blow their money.

      • Re:Sooo.... (Score:5, Funny)

        by cusco (717999) <[brian.bixby] [at] [gmail.com]> on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:47PM (#44558387)
        The Pentagon is like a coke whore who can't find enough ways to blow everyone else's money.

        FTFY
        • by ls671 (1122017)

          is like a coke whore

          They only have one way to spend everyone else's money.

          • by cusco (717999)
            I take it you haven't known any. They have an amazing imagination of what to blow money on. Shoes, clubs, drinks, clothes, anything a mind spinning at 1k rpm can come up with.
        • Congress is like a pack of pimps who can't help but use the DOD, DHHS, and other departments to buy support to keep their status...
      • More like a broke billionaire who still spends like their wealth will never end.

    • Re:Sooo.... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AK Marc (707885) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @06:07PM (#44558587)
      But it worked. It did exactly what they said it would. It was a successful experiment that tested dipoles and orbital mechanics. That you didn't personally find it valuable doesn't make it so.
      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        hat you didn't personally find it valuable doesn't make it so.

        Dude, Maxwell's equations predicted this some hundred years before this experiment was done. By the time it was launched, the equations had been thoroughly and rigorously confirmed. By the time they launched, this was on the scale of commissioning a study to test the theory that apples dropped in Texas fall at almost the exact same rate as apples dropped in the middle of the Sahara desert in a vaccum. It's a well duh sort of "success" story. And as far as orbital mechanics... dude... we put men on the moon

        • Re:Sooo.... (Score:4, Informative)

          by AK Marc (707885) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @07:34PM (#44559481)
          So they had a good idea of the dispersion of space junk in the early 1960s? And yes, the equations were well known, but had they been tested at long range with scattered dipoles?

          The practical realities of the time are they needed to test rockets. They were going to launch a dummy load of some kind for tests. So why not launch something that also tested another cold-war defense theory? It added little to the cost of the launch, other than some small bits of copper. So why the vitriol?

          They wasted $10 on copper in a larger moon landing project. The only rational reading of your post is that you think all governmental space launches are a waste of money, and we should never have gone to the moon or built a shuttle.
          • They wasted $10 on copper in a larger moon landing project. The only rational reading of your post is that you think all governmental space launches are a waste of money, and we should never have gone to the moon or built a shuttle.

            Hmm... launching something into space travelling at about 7 miles per second, knowing it will disperse over a wide area, along an equitorial orbit, and made of thin, long bolts of metal... at the same time we're launching men into space. Yeah, I can't see how anyone might find the "only rational reading" of my concern is that it's a waste of money, instead of being not only a waste of money, but also a hazard to lives and property.

            you think all governmental space launches are a waste of money, and we should never have gone to the moon or built a shuttle.

            "Hello? Strawman Delivers [wikipedia.org]? Yes, I'd like to order a Large special with extra

            • by AK Marc (707885)
              So, what's your complaint? It changed after I refuted some of your claims, so I must assume it is not logic-based, but a deeper hatred of something else. What is it you really don't like about this? They tested a variety of new tech, and new applications of old tech. It was Good Science (tm). So you either hate science or the government. There, now you can claim false dichotomy without answering for your irrational and baseless complaints of this experiment.
        • You sound just like a physicist who thinks that because physics says something should work, engineering it should be easy.

          You just might find that pattern of thinking to be incorrect if you ever put it into practice.

      • by imsabbel (611519)

        No, it did NOT work as planned. Because those dipoles were supposed to de-orbit after a few months.

        Instead, a significant part is STILL up there.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          Then it failed, even better. You learn little when you confirm your hypothesis. But failing in new and interesting ways adds to our knowledge.
    • Re:Sooo.... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by k6mfw (1182893) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @06:55PM (#44559091)
      also back then LEO was about as distant and exotic as Andromeda galaxy, lotsa room for all kinds of stuff i.e. spent boosters, loose nuts, flaked debris (space FOD). Who cares? this was also in days of "gas washdowns" where fire departments respond to traffic collisions to use fire hoses to wash gasoline off the pavement into gutters or side of road (gasoline makes asphalt soft leading to potholes). Totally illegal these days but back then there was lots of room for pollutants. But "earthrise" picture from Apollo 8 changed all when we saw our only habitat is this small speck in vastness of space (terraforming Mars don't count).
    • The plan was fairly ingenious to a point, obviously it had a fatal flaw 'Vandalising space' as the Russians put it. However at least the Communists were a credible threat, in that they could have wiped out a good portion of the globe with MAD. Why does everyone buy that we need to do the same bullshit because of 'terrorism'. The UK had a much more credible terrorist threat for much of the Cold War in the IRA yet the big UK defense money was still spent on the Cold War threat. Now about that ongoing IRA thre
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:11PM (#44558025)

    When America dreamed big, and the impossible fantasies were based on science, not religion!

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      Also when America realized that these small little humans could indeed have an impact on the whole planet.
      "I wonder if we can disrupt the Van Allen radiation belt with a nuclear bomb..."
      BOOM!
      "Oh! we can! neat! I wonder if it will regenerate and if it has any kind of uses for the ecosystem..."
      Luckily, it does regenerate.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    To rule them all...

  • by Russ1642 (1087959) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:16PM (#44558093)

    This is Cave Johnson stuff. If we want to launch billions of copper needles into space to show those commies who they're up against then we'll do whatever it takes.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "If life gives you millions of copper wires, make life take them back... or launch them into space."

      Just don't burn your house down with them, like the lemons.

      • by Russ1642 (1087959) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:39PM (#44558317)

        Good news is the lab boys say the symptoms of copper poisoning show a median latency of forty-four point six years, so if you're thirty or older, you're laughing. Worst case scenario you miss out on a few rounds of canasta, plus you forwarded the cause of science by three centuries. I punch those numbers into my calculator and it makes a happy face.

    • by Valdrax (32670) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:59PM (#44558507)

      Cave Johnson was a parody, and any parody has to have a basis in the thing it's making fun of. The Cold War was filled with junk science and grandiose, delusional "engineering" projects to try to one up stuff that we imagined the commies were up to (and vice versa). Cold War threat assessment by both sides essentially ran on games of telephone and urban legends, and by god we would not have a mine shaft gap!

      Try these links on for size, this article surprised you:
      Nuke the Moon: 5 Certifiably Insane Cold War Projects [cracked.com]
      10 Ridiculous Cold War Government Projects [listverse.com]
      10 Creative Military Plans to Use Animals as Weapons [listverse.com] (half of which are Cold War era).

      Me? There's almost nothing you could say that the US or the Soviets experimented with during the Cold War or thought about doing that I would immediately disbelieve.

      • Project Pluto, a missile that would destroy the territory of the nation launching it.

        • by NemosomeN (670035)
          Not sure if you are joking? The Soviets actually did that in WWII, "Scorched Earth." There have been many other cases of countries destroying their own resources before the enemy can steal them.
        • by Valdrax (32670)

          Eh, I'm not so sure I'd be that dramatic, but it and NERVA were solid proofs that open, solid-core nuclear engine technology suffers serious issues with ablation of the material. I think there's still good possibilities in nuclear rockets, but not in any open-core designs. (Yet some people still discuss them -- even open-core gas designs. [wikipedia.org] Utter madness!)

  • by Rob the Bold (788862) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:22PM (#44558167)

    There was quite a lot of bizarre technology pursued/developed in the cold war for communications, among other things. A similar system was meteor burst communications [wikipedia.org]. The idea was you'd bounce your radio signal off the ionization trail of a meteor for the brief time it existed then wait for the next and so on. This way you could communicate way beyond the normal horizon without satellites, ground repeaters, etc. Unlike many crazy Cold War ideas, it was successful and is still used for military, civilian and amateur purposes.

    • EME (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Dan East (318230) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @09:51PM (#44560645) Homepage Journal

      That is similar to EME - Earth-Moon-Earth communications, where signals are bounced off of the moon. Amateur radio operators still practice this for the exotic / novel QSOs to be had. This is one of the few instances Amateur Radio operators actually need to make use of the maximum allowed 1,500 watts of transmitting power. An interesting side effect is the transmission takes over 5 seconds to reach the moon and return. thus the operator can hear the last 5 seconds of their own transmission.

  • Ring on it (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ioldanach (88584) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:24PM (#44558181)
    The politicians just love the planet so much they tried to put a ring on it.
  • by Arancaytar (966377) <arancaytar.ilyaran@gmail.com> on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:24PM (#44558185) Homepage

    Pro: Awesome radio transmissions
    Con: Filling Earth's orbitals with junk that will fuck with spacecraft for centuries.

    Hm.

  • handy (Score:3, Insightful)

    by iggymanz (596061) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:25PM (#44558199)

    the Soviet union also could have used this primitive system of global satellite coverage, somehow that fact got lost on our own boneheaded leaders

    • by RajivSLK (398494)

      No it's not boneheaded at all. The US would obviously only launch the rockets containing the copper filaments in the case of a communications failure. That is during an attack in which the soviets were able to knocked out American communication the copper filaments would be launched and be used as a backup.

      Seems like a smart contingency plan to me.

      • by iggymanz (596061)

        and then the soviets could use it too without restriction. it's boneheaded, of equal benefit to enemy as friend

    • by jader3rd (2222716)

      the Soviet union also could have used this primitive system of global satellite coverage, somehow that fact got lost on our own boneheaded leaders

      But Democracy thrives on an increase of communication. Socialism dies with communication; which is why the Soviets tried to hard to suppress free press, free speech, etc.

  • How about a Ringworld/Dyson Sphere of these?

    • Let's see...
      Earth's orbit is on the order of 10^12 metres. "Whisker thin" isn't very specific so let's assume 1mm^2 for the cross-section.
      That makes for about 9 million tonnes of copper, assuming an unbroken ring. Not all that much, considering.
  • On a related note (Score:4, Interesting)

    by koan (80826) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:29PM (#44558231)

    Could you string copper wire in such a way the rotation and magnetic field of Earth creates power?

    • by dgatwood (11270)

      Sure. You would slow the rotation of the Earth as you did so, but you could do it. And it would have to tie into the grid at one of the (rotational) poles. And it would be approximately as problematic as building a space elevator, for precisely the same reasons.

    • by Tumbleweed (3706)

      Could you string copper wire in such a way the rotation and magnetic field of Earth creates power?

      But you'd slow down the planet! :)

      • Could you string copper wire in such a way the rotation and magnetic field of Earth creates power?

        But you'd slow down the planet! :)

        I'd say, "I could live with that, think of all the extra free time," but... well, we all know what would happen when the Powers-That-Be found out they could extend the workday by a few more hours...

        • by Tumbleweed (3706)

          Could you string copper wire in such a way the rotation and magnetic field of Earth creates power?

          But you'd slow down the planet! :)

          I'd say, "I could live with that, think of all the extra free time," but... well, we all know what would happen when the Powers-That-Be found out they could extend the workday by a few more hours...

          I think the temperature swings would also be rather problematic.

      • Would you? Or would you slow down the magma flows in the earths mantle that create the magnetic fields, making it progressively weaker.

        It would also need to spin perpendicular to the magnetic field, so there is a change in polarity as it spins. You'd need to start spinning it some other way though, because the earth doesn't rotate north to south. The 23odd degrees offset of magnetic north probably would be enough to do anything.

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Get the Tholians to do it, wouldn't take them long.

    • by Jmc23 (2353706)
      Shiva!
    • by Jmc23 (2353706)
      oops, spelt it incorrectly.

      Siva! http://www.amazon.ca/Siva-Lewis-Richmond/dp/0441768369/ [amazon.ca] Uses the pyramids to harness the energy.

    • Re:On a related note (Score:5, Interesting)

      by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @07:10PM (#44559217) Homepage Journal

      I have been told that wrapping the planet in a loop around the equator will do this. Draw power, slow the planet. Add power, speed the planet. But you could add power anywhere, or draw it anywhere. Problem is, you need room temperature superconductors in order to even think about doing it, let alone to make it practical.

      The person who proposed this idea to me sold it as Freeman Dyson's idea, and called it a Dyson Motor, but I haven't been to find a reference that puts that name together with this idea yet.

      • We are just going through all the isms

        it was fascism, communism and now terrorism, who knows what the next ism will be...seems to me they dont need another, terrorism seems to be more successful at destroying our rights then communism or fascism ever did.

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        In the second Revelation Space novel, the idea you're describing is mooted under that name. I forget the details (even though I just read it) because it was shortly followed by a discussion of realistic relativistic space combat and just, wow. Anyway, I think the name was Alistair Reynolds' own coinage, using "Dyson" in this instance as an adjective synonymous with "megastructural".

        I'd Google up the relevant passage but I'm still knee deep in the last act of the book and, y'know, spoilers.

  • Oh those Russians! However, I don't think Russia is the evil side anymore. We should find a way to block the US spying on the entire world.
    • by slick7 (1703596)

      Oh those Russians! However, I don't think Russia is the evil side anymore. We should find a way to block the US spying on the entire world.

      Wait until the U.S. walks into Syria.

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Oh those Russians! However, I don't think Russia is the evil side anymore. We should find a way to block the US spying on the entire world.

      Not even the US has as pervasive in spying on its own people as the UK (and many UK citizens are all for it, amazing enough.)

      Which is the most free country left in the world?

  • When I was a kid we heard a story going around about piping Great Lakes water to Arizona, a couple thousand miles of pipe necessary, and laughed it off as garbage. Reading Cadillac Desert I found it wasn't fantasy, but actively being pursued.

    Nowadays our goal seems to sling BS around the world at the speed of light.

  • by slick7 (1703596)
    Instead of a copper ring, they settled on a virtual one, around the Constitution, around our e-mails, around our cell phones, hmmm.
  • We forget how big some of the Cold War projects were. Nowadays, we have nuclear subs, international space stations, generations of supersonic aircraft and no-one against to use it. Back then when there was an arms race against an opponent who had some kind of budget, projects could scale up quickly.

    Utterly unneeded, of course but wow, they knew how to think big in those days.

    • by cusco (717999)
      And the Soviets would counter all this gold-plated, high tech, astronomical-budget crap and counter it with something that cost a tenth of the price to make. The answer was always some platinum-plated crap then. The reason for the depleted uranium armor on the Abrams tank is because Soviet factories could pump out cheap shoulder mounted anti-tank missiles with a shaped charge warhead by the thousand that could take out anything less. Pentagon computer-controlled equipment need to be hardened because the
      • by Ferzerp (83619)

        And yet it was the Soviet Union that spent itself in to oblivion and collapsed first. History doesn't support your position.

        • by cusco (717999)
          That's the difference between the rigidity of their planned economy and slightly-organized chaos that makes up the capitalist system. Had the Kremlin stayed within their budget in Afghanistan it's likely that the Soviet Union would have been around longer. When combined with a couple years of bad harvests that necessitated importing expensive food it killed their currency.
        • I've recently been reading that, from a systemic standpoint, the Soviet Union wasn't doing much worse in the 80s than it had been in the 60s or 70s. Gorbachev really did seem to want to reform the Soviet Union just because he thought it was the right thing to do. But once there was limited political freedom and limited economic freedom, the system just kind of caved in on itself. Half-totalitarianism doesn't work.

          Internal accounts of the Soviet collapse make for interesting reading. Gorbachev and Yeltsi

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Tuesday August 13, 2013 @05:42PM (#44558355)

    Seriously... it might be out there... but I love it.

  • Where have I heard this before? Oh yeah...

    http://www.thecomicstrips.com/store/add_strip.php?iid=83812 [thecomicstrips.com]

  • The nice thing about the plan is that, unlike active retransmitting satellites, there are no controls on it. A better design is the large mylar balloons also mentioned in TFA. What happened to those? I can think of many amateurs who would love to be able to bounce signals off of something like that for cheap, reliable international communications.

    Think of the possibilities... Some have played with receiving TV signals from the other side of the planet via moon-bounce. A signal reflector so much closer

  • At one time this would have sounded crazy....then came Hyperloop.

  • This is "Men who stare at goats". In space. With copper.
  • How much damage would one of those 1.8cm bits of copper do when hitting a space station travelling at 17,000mph?

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