Science: Space Watch’s First Catch

Science: Space Watchs First Catch
Three weeks ago, headlines announced that the U.S. had detected a
mysterious “dark” satellite wheeling overhead on a regular orbit. There
was nervous speculation that it might be a surveillance satellite
launched by the Russians, and it brought the uneasy sensation that the
U.S. did not know what was going on over its own head. But last week
the Department of Defense proudly announced that the satellite had
been identified. It was a space derelict, the remains of an Air Force
Discoverer satellite that had gone astray. The dark satellite was the
first object to demonstrate the effectiveness of the U.S.'s new watch
on space. And the three-week time lag in identification was proof that
the system still lacks full coordination and that some bugs still have
to be ironed out. First Sighting. The most important component of the space watch went
into operation about six months ago with the construction of “Dark
Fence,” a kind of radar trip wire stretching across the width of the
U.S. Designed by the Naval Research Laboratory to keep track of
satellites whose radios are silent, it is a notable improvement on
other radars, which have difficulty finding a small satellite unless
they know where to look. Big, 50-kw. transmitters were established at
Gila River, near Phoenix, Ariz, and Jordan Lake, Ala., spraying radio
waves upward in the shape of open fans. Some 250 miles on either side,
receiving stations pick up signals that bounce off any object passing
through the fans. By a kind of triangulation, the operators can make
rough estimates of the object's speed, distance and course. On Jan. 31 Dark Fence detected two passes of what seemed to be an
unknown space object. After detecting several passes during the
following days, Captain W. E. Berg, commanding officer of Dark Fence,
decided that something was circling overhead on a roughly polar orbit.
He raced to the Pentagon and in person reported the menacing stranger
to Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke. Within minutes the news was
communicated to President Eisenhower and marked top secret. In the confusion, there was a delay before anyone took the step
necessary to positively identify the strange satellite: informing the
Air Force's newly established surveillance center in Bedford, Mass. It
is the surveillance center's job to take all observations on satellites
from all friendly observing centers, both optical and electronic, feed
them into computers to produce figures that will identify each
satellite, describe its orbit and predict its behavior. Says one top
official, explaining the cold facts of the space age: “The only way of
knowing that a new satellite has appeared is by keeping track of the
old ones.” It took two weeks for Dark Fence's scientists to check back through
their taped observations, and to discover that the mysterious satellite
had first showed up on Aug. 15. The Air Force surveillance center also
checked its records to provide a list of everything else that was
circling in the sky, and its computers worked out a detailed
description of the new object's behavior. The evidence from both Air
Force and Navy pointed to Discoverer V, fired from Vandenberg Air Force
Base, Calif, on Aug. 13.