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Station 13--South Africa's Area 51?

Anyone who has watched a bit of television will no doubt have heard of Area 51. A top secret military base in the United States rumoured to have captured UFOs and home of top-secret high speed aircraft. Even more secret is the so called STATION 13 that was situated near Babsfontein between Johannesburg and Pretoria during the 1960s to mid 1980s. Despite an intensive search on the Internet and in literature covering space activities in South Africa during that period, there is no specific mention of this station.

So what was STATION 13?

In April 1966 I managed to have a first encounter with it and what follows is what I have been able to glean/deduce. How it came about was that I was looking for the Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera at Olifantsfontein where I was to present myself for an interview for the position of a camera operator/observer. So on the Saturday afternoon I drove from Pretoria in the general direction of Olifantsfontein.

As is customary with me, I always get lost the first time I'm going somewhere. Realising I was lost, I looked for somewhere to ask directions and eventually came to a dirt road that branched off the main road which had a prominent STRICTLY NO ADMITTANCE sign! Next to the closed gate was a long trailer about 3-4 metres high and probably about 12 metres long. I could not see any antennas at the trailer, but in the distance, probably 6-8 km away, hidden by a dip in the terrain, one could see the top of a large radio dish. I immediately knew this was the Babsfontein tracking station about which I had heard rumours. Since I do not usually take notice of signs like these, I opened the gate and entered the trailer. I was met by a young man in US military uniform and behind him were racks of electronic equipment with several other men in uniform. I immediately realised this was a unit setup for the radio tracking of satellites.

I explained my predicament and asked for directions and if I could use their telephone to inform the Baker-Nunn station that I would be late. This he agreed to and led me into a small office with a telephone. As I made the phone call I had a good look around. On the desk was some letter-head paper which identified the place as belonging to the United States Air Force, operated by Pan American Airways (PAA) and was part of the Eastern Missile Test Range (which was used for launches from Cape Canaveral in the United States.)

I now had a good idea which objects they were tracking as I was familiar with most of the satellites transmitting at the time, as I had been tracking them myself with my homemade setup. But anything I asked the soldier was met with a non-committal "No comment" to each question even when I specifically told him which satellites they were tracking. He would not allow me to take any photographs nor travel further along the road in the direction of the large dish on the horizon. I had to leave somewhat unsatisfied.

Now step forward to 1982-1983

As a result of political pressure applied by various governments against South Africa's apartheid policies, the United States closed down all tracking facilities in South Africa. Since it was apparently too expensive to return everything back to the United States, most of the equipment was sold as scrap--in many cases intact and sill operational. No doubt the more sensitive equipment was either destroyed or otherwise disposed of. I was unable to attend the auction--I was living in Durban at the time and anyway had no money. A friend was able to purchase a fair amount of equipment for the Wits University Physics Department and in due course some of the surplus came into my hands--which I still have. I am reasonably certain that what was sold as scrap was basically obsolete, as by the 1980s the use of certain frequencies had been or were being phased out.


Most of the equipment has various labels stuck on it. One is for obvious audit purposes, showing that the inventory was last checked in Fiscal Year 1981-1982, so this must have been just prior to the station being closed down. Other labels state "Property of USAF", "PAA GMRD" (Pan American Airways Guided Missile Range Division) and "ETR" (Eastern Test Range).

Frequency coverage

From the frequency coverage of the receivers, I doubt very much that I have a complete set, as the United States had a fair number of classified satellites in orbit for which no frequency information was publically available (nor has been made available subsequently). Some of the tracking activities covered the SECOR (Sequential Correlation of Range) satellites which transmitted a series of musical tones. This gave the accurate distance to the satellite and was used for more accurate mapping of the Earth's surface--this was before the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The early NAVY navigation satellites (150/400 Mhz) were also tracked--probably for accurate time. One receiver covered the frequencies used by the MERCURY/ GEMINI missions as well as the STS (Space Transportation System), more commonly known as the Space Shuttle.

Of more particular interest is the equipment covering 960 MHz. The only spacecraft ever to use this frequency (as far as I know) was the early RANGER craft (1961-1965)--and possibly other lunar missions--where a spacecraft was deliberately crashed into the moon and a sequence of photographs transmitted until the moment of impact. The Ranger craft transmitted in two channels on 960 MHz, one transmitter at 3 W and one at 50 mW, using two antennae - one high gain and the other omnidirectional. I have both the receiver and the preamplifier used for this mission. The pre-amp was located at prime focus of the large dish.



Just how large was their main dish and what happened to it? From what I recall it was 84 feet (~26 m) in diameter. This makes it a twin of the dish at Hartebeesthoek, which was originally part of the DEEP SPACE TRACKING NETWORK and is now HartRAO. According to what literature I could find, all 84-foot dishes manufactured were accounted for, so where did this one come from? Unfortunately I never got close enough to it to see if it was similar to the one at HartRAO. I understand it was sold as scrap for R3 000 with the proviso that the buyer remove it from site. Apparently the new owner soon found out that he had bitten off more than he could chew. I have no idea what eventually happened to it.

A large antenna array for 136-138 MHz was sold to an electronics company in the Johannesburg area and was erected at the entrance to their premises, purely for impressive cosmetic effect. One (or maybe more) fully equipped tracking vans were "sold as is"--I have no details of the purchaser/s, etc. No doubt antennae for other frequencies were also disposed of.

Some of the equipment obtained by the Wits Physics Department was modified and set up at a Weather Bureau site. This included a dish of a few metres in diameter that had been used for hail research and was to be used for radio astronomy. I have no information if this project ever came to fruition.

More clues, more questions

I do not recall where I got the station identification as STATION 13. It might have been a confusion by someone else, as the Baker-Nunn station at Olifantsfontein had a station identification number of 9013.

The involvement of Pan American Airways was initially puzzling but the Internet solved that. The Pan American Airways Guided Missiles Range Division (PAA GMRD) was a prime contractor to the USAF and was responsible for providing operations and maintenance for the Eastern Test Range. But a little more confusing is that South Africa was not part of the eastern test range. This station was so secret there does not appear to be any mention of it in the descriptions of the Goddard Missile Range or the Eastern Test Range to be found on the Internet today.

What was such a big dish used for, apart from lunar missions? Was it used for deep space missions? All in all there is virtually no information available on this station. Is there anyone in South Africa sill alive today who can shed more light on this? From the little I saw, only people in United States uniform were employed--so did this exclude locals?


To conclude, I don't think they had any captured UFOs--but who knows? But what seems certain, is that we had our own Area 51!

Greg Roberts
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Title Annotation:astronomical traveller
Author:Roberts, Greg
Publication:Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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