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SPUTNIK 1 - Amazing first ever Spacecraft

STARFIX NEEDED IN ORBIT OVER PERTH

By Tom Scotland

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into space on October 4th 1957. That launch inaugurated the modern space age. It was an 84kg capsule the size of a soccer ball with an orbit of 96 minutes reaching a maximum height of 942 kilometres and minimum height of 230 kilometres. The Russians were soon crowing about their triumphant accomplishment of being first to get such a capsule into space.  And so they should, it WAS a significant achievement. 

Kukanatos graphic of Sputnik 1The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the US needed star-fixes on the craft to establish the pattern of its orbit. Star-fixes on Sputnik 1 had been difficult to obtain worldwide, because of weather conditions. 

 

One of the orbits of that Russian capsule would take it over Perth at about 9.00pm on October 9th 1957. At that time the WA Astronomical Society in Perth was operating the official Smithsonian ‘MoonWatch’ station for acquiring the required star fixes on Sputnik 1. The Perth station needed a starfix on Sputnik 1 and it would be a coup for Western Australia and it would greatly assist in establishing the orbit pattern of the so-called "enemy" spacecraft.   

 

But the Society suffered limitations to their equipment. Their leader, Ron Boggis Ashe approached the Mains Road Department in Perth for help. He was referred on to two civil engineers normally involved in road and bridge construction particularly around the new road to Bunbury and the Narrows Bridge at that time.  The two men were also veteran bomber pilots of multiple air operations across Europe during World War 2. They had extensive experience in obtaining star fixes to assist their navigation. 


At day’s end in the Main Roads Department, engineers Bill Kelliher and Tom Scotland selected their theodolites and travelled to a house owned by Ron Boggis Ashe at Como along the Swan River (Lot 137 Swan Location 42) that had become the official Smithsonian MoonWatch Station.

   

Excitement gripped the Society members as Tom and Bill set up their instruments and established proper orientation to obtain their star-fix. Then it was time for Sputnik 1 to appear overhead.  There would only be seconds of time in which to fix the theodolite telescopes on the tiny speeding object. Suddenly there was a shout; "Here she comes." Bill Kelliher yelled, "I think I've got it." The official timekeeper waited to snap the time on his watch. But Bill groaned, "I missed the bloody thing."  

 

Tom Scotland was tense. He had seen that amazing, tiny light that was Sputnik 1 speeding towards the northeast across the night sky of Perth. Suddenly it was moving right across the cross-wires of the telescope on his theodolite. His shout was loud, "Take the time, NOW!" The official timekeeper snapped his watch. Members of the WA Astonomical Society crowded around. That magical star-fix shot was read out from the theodolite. It was a simple matter to write down the azimuth and elevation. Those readings became the official Perth ‘MoonWatch’ station’s contribution to the records of Sputnik 1 as it travelled across Western Australia.  An excited Bill Kelliher and Tom Scotland went back to the development of arterial roads in Western Australia and in 1958 Sputnik 1 fell back towards earth and burnt in the atmosphere. 

 

The readings also became the official record of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the USA and certificates of appreciation  were awarded to Tom and Bill. 

Tom Scotland with a photo of his wartime bomber 

© Tom Scotland DFC                              Read Tom Scotland's exciting account of his experiences

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