Ron Ashe (ASWA
Honorary Life Member)
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.
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.
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.
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 US 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 unexpectedly 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 magnitude 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.
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 including 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
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.
The 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
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.
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
Perth ASWA MoonWatch Station 601-122-296.
Lat 32 degrees 00'07"S Lon 115 degrees 51'10"E
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ron Ashe is a founding member of the Astronomical Society
of Western Australia. In 1986 he was made an Honorary Life
Member of the Society.