Wednesday, 11 February 2015

pins and needles

In the early 1960s, the US military, fearful of Soviet sabotage against traditional modes of communication that were restricted to undersea cables or radio signals propagated with varying degrees of reliability—depending on the weather and other factors—when bounced off the ionosphere, commissioned the laboratories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create an artificial ring in low orbit of some half a million tiny copper needles to augment the quality of transmissions. Once the news of the secret programme called Project West-Ford was uncovered, there was understandable outrage that America could deport itself in such a manner, possibly polluting the atmosphere and grounding space travel forever by undertaking an experiment on a global scale. Pressure from the scientific community was passionate and brought about the international Treaty on Outer Space. The system worked well and did facilitate broadcasting and if the technique had not been made obsolete by the communications satellite, another orbiting ring, we might still be chattering via pins in the sky. Though the majority of needles have fallen back to Earth, a few are still circling the globe half a century on.