Printer Friendly

IGY reminiscences.

Dr William Stephen Finsen was Chief Assistant of the then Union Observatory in Johannesburg. In 1956 he became Union Astronomer and eventually the one and only Republic Astronomer when South Africa became a Republic in 1961. These reminiscences are interesting for the background detail he gives, see article in this issue on "Moonwatch in South Africa". His remark that he "... was not prepared to see the Observatory turned into a satellite station ..." came after the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was over. His feelings were almost prescient, echoing those of many of the astronomical community today, who don't see astronomy being a "space science"! Editor

Although the symbol or badge of the International Geophysical Year (on letterheads, etc.) was a satellite orbiting the Earth (Fig. 1), the South African IGY Committee had apparently not taken this very seriously and had perhaps regarded the successful launching of satellites as a flight of fancy. At any rate, no funds had been set aside for possible participation by South Africa. As far as I know, I was the first to draw attention to the serious preparations that were being made for this project overseas. This was at a small meeting convened by Dr TEW Schumann (Director of the Weather Bureau), and there was visible surprise on the part of those present at my urging that "sputnikery" was to be taken seriously. Dr Schumann even suggested that as I appeared to know so much about the subject I should give a lecture on it! I replied by saying that I had already exhausted my knowledge of the subject. Dr Schumann: "You are very honest!"

At a later meeting I warned of the imminent launching of Russian satellites. It was Major Cockbain, of Defence Intelligence, who told me afterwards that they had also got wind of it.

Sputnik 1 launched

As I remember, it was on a Saturday morning that the news broke of the launching of Sputnik 1. The office was bedlam--phone ringing continuously (almost), reporters etc. No time at all to sit down and sort things out. No hard information from overseas--only the TASS predictions that at such and such times the Sputnik would be "over" such and such cities (none of which were in South Africa). And of course the whole of South Africa wanted to know when it would be visible here. Over the weekend I locked myself in my workshop and made a small and rough model of Earth and satellite orbit. With the help of this and the TASS predictions I was soon able to see the general nature of the orbit (period inclination, etc.) and with a rough guess at the rate of precession of the node, I was able to forecast fairly accurately when the Sputnik would first be visible from South Africa. I accordingly wrote a short statement, and I think it was on the next day that Prof SP Jackson came to the office to see if we could tell him anything definite. I showed him my statement and he asked if he could take it away, which he did. On that night Dr Naude did a national broadcast on the Sputnik in the course of which he read my statement --without acknowledging its source!

I shall not easily forget the relief I felt when we first saw Sputnik 1 shooing across the sky in good agreement with my prediction. For some days thereafter SAPA phoned the TASS predictions through to me, which was a great help.

Quest for accurate predictions

For the three-dimensional slide-rule I bought the largest terrestrial globe obtainable locally, and converted it in my workshop. It was calibrated with care so that one could set it with conventional astronomical orbital parameters, and there was even provision for determining the time of entry into the Earth's shadow. This model gave times, altitudes and directions with sufficient accuracy for naked eye Sputniks, correct to a minute or so in time, and about 5[degrees] or so in altitude when fairly high in the sky, and better when near the horizon. I remember occasions when we observed (and photographed) a Sputnik over Tristan da Cunha and Madagascar. The model was also helpful for correcting the orbital elements using the observations of the night before.

The public demand for information was so insatiable and the resulting phone calls from press and public for predictions so continuous and disrupting that the only remedy was to phone predictions for the next day (or days, when weekends followed) to SAPA before 10 am. I therefore had to be in the office as early as 5 or 6 am every day to reduce the observations of the night before, correct the orbit, and prepare predictions for the major centres. This after two or even three observing sessions during the night: I often had to set my alarm twice during the night. I think I am right in saying that I took part in every observing session - except of course when I went to Moscow for the IGY and IAU meetings.

I think the observing methods and the vetting of observations must have been rather sound, for in Moscow I was interviewed by a member of the Russian organization who wanted to know exactly how we made such accurate observations.

Incidentally, the Russians at the IGY meeting were very cagey about releasing the conventional orbital elements of their Sputniks. They claimed that their computers were not capable of doing this, and that all they could supply were predictions. This led to rather heated protests from foreigners present, including myself. I asked why they did not let us have the conventional parameters that they must be using--we could turn them into regular orbital elements ourselves. No, they couldn't do it.

Sputnik fatality!

It may not be remembered that the Sputniks resulted in at least one fatality in South Africa. This happened because newspapers sometimes did a little predicting on their own--they noticed that often there were two passes in the evening separated by 100 minutes or so. What they did no realize was that their predicted second pass was invisible as the satellite was then in the Earth's shadow. On one such occasion a man on the roof or balcony of a block of flats leaned over too far in his attempt to see the invisible spectacle, and fell to his death.

I found then that the easier and most successful way of observing a Sputnik was to mount a pair of binoculars on a tripod with three axes, one of which permitted tracking along the plane of the orbit. The Sputnik was then followed ill it passed between two suitable stars. The binoculars were then let in position and the stars identified at leisure.

Fainter American satellites

The three-dimensional slide-rule was adequate for naked eye Sputniks, but was not sufficiently accurate for faint American satellites, although even in these cases it was useful for showing the general situation, and for rough checking. For the American satellites it was necessary to use quite sophisticated computational methods for reducing observations, correcting the orbits, and computing the predictions. Though they were based on well-known dynamical procedures (certainly well-known to a double star specialist!) it was necessary to invent and improvise, and look for all possible shortcuts. It was very heavy work, at the crack of dawn, day-in and day-out. The accuracy of the predictions was quite pleasing: the error in time was a matter of seconds rather than minutes, and in altitude of minutes of arc rather than degrees.

South African Witchdoctor

It was at the braaivleis to celebrate the opening of the Baker-Nunn station that a set of predictions for SAO clattered out of the telex, ending with the greatly appreciated compliments: "but rely heavily on Finsen's predictions". Also appreciated was Cameron's generous acknowledgement of the value of my predictions. On at least one occasion, so he told me, he ended a telexed report to SAO of successful observations with the words "Predictions by South African Witchdoctor" and he even presented me with a plaque with the legend "South African Witchdoctor".

I always felt that the difficulties under which Cameron had to work were not understood: beginning a whole new project involving sophisticated but un tried techniques in unfamiliar surroundings in a foreign country. My personal relations with him were always of the most pleasant nature.

For the record and as a testimonial to his ability, I would like to mention his notable contributions to conventional astronomy since severing his connection with artificial satellite work, e.g. his meticulous editing of the published proceedings of the symposium on Magnetic and Related Stars (1965) and his chapter on Stellar Evolution in Introduction to Space Science (Ed. Wilmot N. Hess), one of the most lucid surveys at the present time (1959-1960).

The Baker-Nunn station

Shortly before the beginning of the IGY, great pressure was brought on me to agree to the Union Observatory undertaking the management of the Baker-Nunn station. The inducement was even held out of the Observatory acquiring the camera at the end of the IGY and using it for purely astronomical purposes, (as I once remarked at a meeting of the Satellite Committee, the belief seemed to be prevalent that all artificial satellites would obediently tumble to Earth on 31 December 1958--failure to realize that we were witnessing the birth of a new era.) I insisted that the proposal would be acceptable only on condition that the camera station had its own Officer-in -Charge as a branch of the Observatory, recruited its own staff, and in the event of unfillable vacancies, would not be allowed to call on the observatory's astronomical specialists. Outside commitments always tend to take priority over domestic activities, and I was not prepared to see the Observatory turned into a satellite station. My views were not sympathetically received, but subsequent events have only reinforced my attitude and I have never regretted the stand I took up.

Returning to Astronomy

We entered into whole-hearted cooperation with the IGY activities with the understanding that it was limited to the period 1957-1958 and that thereafter we would revert to our normal astronomical activities. This attitude also met with some criticism. At one of the last meetings of the Satellite Committee I expressed the view that after the IGY satellite work should be the responsibility of specialists and proposed that a small satellite bureau should be created to retain the services of one or two people who had shown special aptitude. This proposal was received almost with horror.

When Dr Hynek expressed his surprise at the decision to disband "the world's foremost Moonwatch team" I countered by telling him that the suggestion that we should carry on indefinitely, was like shouting to a hundred yard sprinter as he breasted the tape "now carry on for a mile!" We had exerted ourselves to the utmost and given of our best as loyal members of an international team, but we had had enough.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:satellites tracking; International Geophysical Year
Author:Finsen, W.S.
Publication:Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 1, 2013
Words:1829
Previous Article:Moonwatch in South Africa: 1957-1958.
Next Article:Astronomical colloquia.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters