Keep Watching The Skies

The history of Moonwatch – the satellite-tracking programme

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W Patrick McCray
Princeton University Press
£17.95
344 pages, Hardback

Do you remember Moonwatch? I do, vividly, because I was an active member of it from its first day to its last.

The launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1, in 1957, took the west by surprise. Nobody had any real idea what satellites would look like, or how they would move – remember we knew little about conditions in the rarefied upper atmosphere. There was an urgent need to track the satellites, so that their future behaviour could be predicted. Initially, radio tracking was possible only with the 250ft dish at Jodrell Bank. However, visual tracking of the satellites succeeding Sputnik 1 could provide the essential data.

Professional astronomers were not geared to this kind of observation. Amateurs were, and due largely to the skill and energy of the main organiser, Fred Whipple, Moonwatch was set up. The observing equipment was modest and cheap; many of the Moonwatchers were inexperienced – but they soon learned. In those first few years the data they provided was absolutely invaluable, and teams were formed in many countries.

Patrick McCray has provided an excellent account of the whole programme; so far as I know, this is the only book to do so. I strongly recommend it. Moonwatch deserves an honoured place in scientific history, and many of us could not help feeling sorry when we were officially “stood down” on 30 June 1975!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Patrick Moore is the presenter of The Sky At Night on BBC TV

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