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Fifty Years Ago

by Ron Ashe (ASWA Honorary Life Member)

Any member lucky enough to have been in attendance at the ASWA meeting on September 8th 1997 might have observed our Keith Williams lugging in a weighty contraption built mostly of bronze and boasting many knobs, screws and setting circles, producing a fascinating overall effect! Geoff Burke immediately identified it as the almost fossilised remains of a piece of artillery sighting equipment, which indeed it was. A date engraved on the bodycasting announced that it had been born in 1919. In actual fact it was much more than an old item of military hardware. It was part of ASWA's early history from the time when the Society was but seven years old.

Around 1970 many old items of equipment were being auctioned to raise funds for other activities and the piece was purchased by Klaus Misins who knew something of its history and intended to preserve it with the idea of presenting it back to ASWA should they ever set up the museum that had been suggested. Many of our older members will remember Klaus, long before he developed his business, York Optics into the Australia wide company that it is today. In the days when the Bronze was acquired he was our very capable Secretary and Editor.

The history behind this artefact is inextricably tied in with the period of ASWA's history to which someone like Winston Churchill would have given a neat label. Perhaps!! "This was their finest hour"? The main difference was that it did not last for hours or days, but carried on for a period well over three years. I refer, of course, to the satellite tracking station run as a section of ASWA as part of the Smithsonian (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory - SAO) 'Operation MoonWatch'. To present the artefact in its correct setting, a brief history of MoonWatch Station 601-122-296 would not come amiss, although a more detailed history can be found in "Genesis + 10" in 'The Sidereal Times' for April 1990.

In early 1957 there was much excitement over the projected launching of the first American artificial satellite. Not a large satellite by present day standards, being around two feet in diameter. Even that was later reduced to something about the size of a grapefruit. SAO set about organising a train of tracking stations around the world to track this and subsequent objects and were appealing through S & T for possible volunteers. At that time I was in touch with Dr Alan Hynek and Dr Whipple with a view to forming a Perth group. They had passed my letters to Dr Martyn of CSIRO who had himself previously contacted Hymie Spigl, the Government astronomer and ASWA Secretary at that time. Anyway, all was sorted out, resulting in my being asked to form an observing section of ASWA to operate as a Smithsonian 'MoonWatch' station which would be sited at my then home at Como. Como was a dark suburban location in those days, ideally suited to amateur astronomy and therefore satellite tracking. Imagine very few street lights, no advertising neons, no freeway and virtually no light pollution at all ... Perfect! Perhaps I should record for posterity that the station was on Lot 137 of Swan Location 42. Nothing remains today, for when I sold the property in 1971 it was subdivided and four two-storey home units were constructed. The heart of the old station now lies in the middle of a domestic swimming pool ... Sic transit gloria mundi!

 The fabric of the station was constructed by members working at weekends to a design that I had adapted from several methods suggested by the USstation 1 organisers. It consisted basically of a very heavy table on six legs, each mounted directly into deep concrete footings and accurately aligned E-W. On the table, permanently aligned and screwed down were twelve small telescopes of 50 mm aperture, all with an Erfle eye piece. They each had a field of 12 degrees which allowed a square grid operating field of 8 x 8 degrees. Every field joined up exactly to its neighbour to the north and south, so that one erected a 96 degree optical fence along the meridian.

 The unit was not quite complete when the Russians unexpectedlysputnik 1 siting launched the first Sputnik on October 4th 1957. While the fabric of our construction was finished, vital optical parts had still not arrived from America. Hurriedly as a stopgap with gathered together six surveyors' theodolites and a number of carefully rated stopwatches and went hunting. Radio and timing parts of the unit were luckily already operational. While the small satellite itself was not within range of our scratch equipment, many passages of the tumbling final stage rocket were recorded as it passed over WA. Our radio boffin, Wally Coxon, took the accompanying photograph on an early passage. When the main observing unit was completed later, the theodolites had proven so successful that they were retained as a permanent part of our instrumentation to cope with the brighter naked eye satellites.

 In the light of experience with both theodolites and fixed meridian fence a need for something better became apparent. We needed the magnitudem1 threshold of the 50 mm fence instruments coupled to the flexibility of the theodolites. Something that could take altitude /azimuth/time measures anywhere in the sky and could make repeated observations throughout a passage. Thus the 'MX' came into being. One of our very keen team members, Archie Strickland, had via a war surplus store acquired an old piece of artillery gun laying equipment, the piece mentioned at the start of this account.

After removing the original telescope from the mounting for use as a finder on his own instrument, he donated the remains to science and passed it over to me to experiment and perhaps come up with the answer to our tracking needs. It is in this form that it now exists and was seen at our recent meeting. When it was in use as our MX instrument it appeared as shown in the station photographs. I had cannibalised the instrument at the south end of our meridian fence and constructed an elbow telescope that was fixed to the top bar of the assembly. An altitude scale, crank handles to both axes and illumination for rapid reading of both scales was added and the MX was born! For the curious, I should add that the designation MX was entirely our own original nomenclature, standing for "MoonWatch Extras" and was coined many years before the Americans named both an aircraft and a rocket with the same two letters. The performance of our new instrument was phenomenal and multiple measures of satellites were obtained at almost every passage.

The general high performance of Perth MoonWatch was recognised at SAO by granting Prime A status which enabled us to borrow several items includingstation 2 ten 120 mm aperture refractors. These we mounted on two 6" RSJs each pivoting on a heavy steel tripod with azimuth circle. Each boom carried five of the 120 mm instruments equipped with individual altitude scales. Thus we could put up a fence at any altitude or azimuth that might be required. We could handle any satellite down to very faint magnitudes. All of the heavy steel work was fabricated for us at the Midland Railway Workshops. The original 50 mm instruments were also mounted on top of the booms, facilitating a very long fence to be deployed at any azimuth, though with a lower magnitude threshold than that achieved with the 120 mm array.

The station operations continued for almost four years, during which time ASWA was seldom missing from newspaper and TV reports. Public interest was such that Society membership rose to levels not achieved either before or since - hence my borrowed Churchillian quotes at the beginning of this account.

Click for larger imageThe first observation was made on October 9th, 1957 and was of 1957 Alpha (1), better known as Sputnik 1. This was followed by 1957 Beta, the second Sputnik, with the dog Laika aboard. Almost a thousand satellite measures were recorded during the life of the station, among them some that might be claimed as modest achievements. Four times Perth made a world wide first visual measure of a newly launched satellite, and on another launching, Sputnik Two managed to make the first measures outside Russia. One of the four first measures was of the Echo One balloon, a hundred foot diameter gas bag that had been launched from Wallops Island. We picked it up only partially inflated before it had completed half an orbit (August 12th, 1960). Another campaign medal was earned when Perth was only one of three stations able to provide observations that facilitated the identification of a so-called mystery satellite that turned out to be the recovery capsule of '1959 Epsilon' which instead of returning to Earth on command, went into an orbit that outlasted the last stage of its launching rocket.

The success of Perth MoonWatch was due in no small part to the fine cooperation received from John (BJ) Harris, then Government Astronomer at Perth Observatory, when they were still at the historic Mount Eliza site. John was our clearing house for all rapid transit reports to WRE at Salisbury, SAO and to the Academy of Science in Moscow. He also relayed their messages to us containing ephemerides for all forthcoming transits, to which he added his own very helpful information and suggestions. The station finally ceased operations at the end of 1960 when information acquired over the previous period made further operations virtually redundant. A couple of instruments remained on site 'in case of emergencies' but they were never needed.

One last 'bleat' came from the station in 1962 when John Glenn made his historic flight. With good predictions we knew exactly when and where he would pass over Perth and prepared our own special greeting. Two 2,000 watt globes had been borrowed from PWD and these formed the hub of our beacon. Around these were clustered numerous other domestic globes of powers around 150/200 watts. To give maximum effect every household mirror that could be found or borrowed were arranged around the globes in an approximately paraboloidal form, aligned to cover the predicted track. At the appropriate time the assembly was switched on and wonder of wonders we did not blow all the fuses! We believe that it was our light that John Glenn saw when he said, "I can see the lights of the city and JUST TO THE SOUTH A VERY BRIGHT LIGHT". It was Perth MoonWatch saying farewell, even though the local news broadcasters supposed that he was referring to the Kwinana Refinery flare, (much too far south). We just did not think it worth our while to contradict them!


Perth ASWA MoonWatch Station 601-122-296.

Lat 32 degrees 00'07"S Lon 115 degrees 51'10"E





Ron Ashe was a founding member of the Astronomical Society of Western Australia. In 1986 he was made an Honorary Life Member of the Society.