by Peter Davies
I was selected as the chief observer for SPAN (the Solar Particle Alert Network) at Carnarvon in October 1966 but could not take up the position until late December, as the Department of Supply would not release me until their Christmas break. After a few days at IPS (Ionospheric Prediction Service) I flew to Boulder, Colorado on New Year's Eve.
I was met by Pat McIntosh who took me under his wing. The person in charge of SESC (Space Environment Services Center) at that time (and it's founder, I believe) was Bob Doeker, an ex AWS (US Air Force Air Weather Service) colonel. He has since died.
Boulder did not have a solar H-alpha telescope at that time. Pat had a white light telescope of his own in his back yard which he used to record sunspots and he taught me how to draw, measure and classify sunspots. Training consisted of many lectures by people prominent in their field of solar physics.
Also being trained were two NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Officers, the first to join SESC. As part of the training, I was sent to various observatories around the USA, including Sac Peak Observatory (New Mexico), the McMath-Hulbert Observatory near Detroit, the Lockheed Observatory in Los Angeles (their telescope was in the car park, for good seeing). I also went to Houston. The OIC (Officer In Command) was Don Robbins. They had the Razdow (a hydrogen-alpha telescope) set up there but they did not seem to run a proper solar patrol. I think, but am not certain, that their telescope was transferred to Boulder. I finished my training run with NASA in Washington DC, where I met the people to whom the data would be sent.
My first trip to Houston was a bit of an adventure because I was given my plane ticket and a voucher for car hire. The plane arrived at Houston after dark and I had to travel many miles to my hotel halfway between the city and the base via the freeway, the first time I had driven in the States. Like David Johns I cashed in my first class ticket to tourist so I could visit family in Wales (strictly a no no). Don Robbins got to hear of this and asked me to visit the station at Canary Islands to report on the situation there. It seems Boulder had sent their observer Frank Recely out there without informing the station director and so he was a sort of persona non grata. This was sorted out to everyone's satisfaction.
I arrived at Carnarvon in early April 67.
The station was operated by Amalgamated Wireless Australia (AWA)under contract to the Dept of Supply. The Station Director was Lou Wainwright, who later had an assistant station director. His Admin Officer was Milton Turner and he also had a secretary. As a Public Servant I was responsible to the Station Director, not AWA.
Carnarvon Tracking Station was a few miles outside the town and spread over a large site, with the main centre (top camp) which housed Admin, the main tracking system and antenna, computer centre and control centre. There was also a generator building, a MINItrack centre, workshops and the SPAN building which was the first building you came to after the main entrance.
The SPAN building had a doorway opening to the main equipment room housing the radio telescope electronics and recording equipment, the riometer equipment, darkroom and workshop. On the roof of the building was the dome housing the Razdow telescope, accessible via an external staircase. Staff consisted of the observer, maintenance staff (2) and operators (3) but only one of the operators was present at a time. Outside the building was a dome housing the antenna dish for the radio telescope, also outside was the antenna array for the riometer. Surrounding the SPAN site, vegetation had been planted (wattle type natives) to improve seeing. This attracted a family of emus. There was a irrigation system installed.
When I first got there I was raw. I had no ephemeris, no data on the tilt of the sun, no data on solar regions. To send reports all I could do was say a region was in the top right of telescope image etc. This gradually improved as I got the SESC daily report, when I could quote region numbers etc. Boulder wanted observations every 5 mins but this was obviously impossible except during periods of high activity. I spent my time in the dome, listening to local radio, occasionally going downstairs to check on the telescope, whose output was displayed on paper charts for each of the three frequencies monitored. Flares were recorded from subflares upward. Classification was up to the observer's judgement as there was no quick measurement system. Large flares (class 2 or over) were reported to Boulder via teletype via the comms centre at top camp and for large flares via voice through the comms centre.
At the beginning I was working dawn to dusk but IPS realised this was too much and hired a second observer, Hanz Britz. I used to start work at dawn, the operators would have started a bit earlier and would have loaded the 35mm solar patrol camera, checked the radio telescope charts etc. I would send a quick preliminary report to Boulder. As soon as seeing improved, the operator would take a test strip and print a 12 inch picture of H alpha and also a smaller picture for a 28 day rotation board which I had got the AWA workshop to make for me. By then seeing was good enough to make a sunspot measurement. These data enabled me to produce a morning report for Boulder, transmitted by teletype. The operators also arranged to send the H alpha films and radio telescope charts to NASA (taken up to the comms centre when I went up for breakfast). After that I could relax and go on with observing. I forgot to say that from the daily test print I produced a drawing of the plage regions which I used to help me in producing flare positions and sizes. A midday report was made, and then a closing report. All copies of reports were sent to IPS in Sydney, also notification of major flares by phone, though first priority was given to Boulder and NASA reports. Sometimes if a major flare occurred towards evening I would talk to the Canary Islands by voice link (I spoke to Joe Hirman a long time before I actually met him). It helped a lot to have visited these sites and spoken to the operator.
Later we had a 35mm camera which would fit on to the Razdow in lieu of the eyepiece and for large flares I could take photos which the operator immediately processed so I could send a follow up report. The picture quality was not very good. Jim Gregg was the technician in charge when I first went there and he had good experience in optics and photography, but apparently he fell foul of the hierarchy. I got on well with the technicians but sometimes we quarreled because they wanted to service the equipment during the day, contrary to the rules that nothing was to interfere with observations. After Hans Britz arrived, we worked shifts dawn to normal public service working day, or to dusk, with one operator working dawn to dusk every other weekend.
During my early period Gary Heckman was sent out from Boulder to train as an observer before posting to the Canary Island and he spent a few weeks at Carnarvon, enabling me to take a well earned holiday. During manned missions, both observers worked dawn to dusk. Should any large flares occur we had to report to Capcon (usually an astronaut was sent to each tracking station to be OIC of the control room, in contact with the astronauts). We could also be in instant voice comms with Houston and Boulder. We could offer our suggestion as to whether there was a possibility of a proton flare, although of course those in the USA had access to all sorts of satellite data which we did not have. I never saw a proton flare during manned missions.
During manned missions the riometer output was monitored 24 hours a day by the AWA staff, as it could indicate a nuclear blast in the atmosphere that an earth orbiting satellite could pass through. After 4 years at Carnarvon, I was posted back to Sydney as Clarrie McHugh wanted me there, although I would have preferred to stay. While at Carnarvon I had visits from Bob Doeker and Pat McIntosh as well as people from the Lockheed Observatory. Of course, Frank Cook and Clarrie McHugh (from IPS) visited.
I enjoyed my stay in Carnarvon, the fishing was great and I was a founding member of the sportsfishing club. I became a member of the local Rotary Club and so got to know many of the local people. One was Clarrie Lewington who ran Boolathanna Station a few miles outside Carnarvon. We were friendly with many of the plantation people as well as members of the Agriculture Research Station. As a Rotary member, I visited Exmouth when they formed their Rotary Club, sponsored by the Carnarvon Club. Living was good at Carnarvon, Jean had a part time job as a telephone operator and got to know many people in the outlying area. We could arrange her shifts and mine so someone would always be home to get the children off to school etc.
I was proud to be involved in NASA's lunar project.
Australian Space Academy