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This Day in 1958: Naval Space Surveillance System Proposed to ARPA
This year has multiple 65th anniversaries of the space program. January 31st was the anniversary of the launch of America’s first satellite Explorer 1. Today is a much more obscure date. ARPA, now DARPA, is the Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was set up by President Eisenhower to facilitate research in technology with military applications.
As many of you know, my father worked on the tracking system, Minitrack, for Project Vanguard. In January 1958, he realized that a more advanced system would be needed to track non-radiating (spy) satellites. Minitrack ran N-S from Blossom Point, MD, to Santiago, Chile. Early satellites were launched to the east to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation. A north-south configuration was ideal to track them. Spy satellites are generally launched into a polar orbit so they can observe the whole Earth as it rotates under them. Space Surveillance ran east-west along 33 degrees north in the U.S. There were three transmitting stations and six receiver stations. Captain David Holmes of ARPA arranged for a powerful transmitter to be placed at Lake Kickapoo, TX. He later played a major role in the early development of GPS.
Space Surveillance was very successful and my father received the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. My oldest sister said the awards ceremony was big. $750 in 1960 was real money. In 1962, we visited the Lake Kickapoo station en route to Santa Barbara.
A second band of Space Surveillance stations was constructed in southern Texas to compute satellite orbits on one pass. This required synchronizing the clocks in the stations. The cesium atomic clocks would drift when driven from one station to another; they couldn’t afford hydrogen masers. Transmitting the signal over the horizon was noisy. In September 1964, dad realized that he could synchronize them using a clock in a satellite. And that would also make a good Navsat. The result was his Timation system which provided the bulk of the features in GPS.
Note that NSSS was decommissioned in 2013.Published in Science & Technology
This is so great and interesting!
Very cool stuff.
I visited a decommissioned operations center for an over the horizon backscatter radar system once. I believe it was intended to watch for ICBMs and Soviet bombers. As I understand it the OTH-B bounced radar off the ionosphere instead of a satellite. It is interesting to see how longer a lifespan the NSSS had.
Might not be a bad idea to keep a lot of it in place for historical purposes.
Richard, what frequencies or more like bands, did they use?
Sometimes when I was a kid, living in Oregon, for visiting grandparents depending on what route we took we’d go by the decommissioned Adair Air Force Base, which I think was part of some kind of early warning radar network.
Just curious, why was it a naval responsibility? It seems logical that it would be an air force asset.
That’s a good question. My father worked for the Naval Research Lab so programs he thought up would logically be built by them. And the Navy was worried about spy satellites detecting Navy methods. McNamara gave the Air Force priority in space in 1961 but that was three years after this.
My father and I talked about this in 2008. The first seven minutes are announcements. https://www.thespaceshow.com/show/28-sep-2008/broadcast-1025-special-edition
Here’s an article about shutting down the Space Fence.
Or for tracking balloons.