Russia's announcement that she had successfully launched a space satellite sent University astronomers into a flurry of activity last night as they alerted observation posts throughout the world to be on the watch for the Soviet artificial moon.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at 79 Garden St., in association with the Harvard College Observatory, is the national headquarters of "Operation Moonwatch," the network of observers set up to track the U.S. satellite when it is launched.
The first sighting of the Russian satellite was made by a "moonwatch" group at Terre Haute, Ind., at 9:50 EDST. The next report of seeing the object came from Columbus, Ohio, at 11:28 EDST. Both of these reports indicated the satellite travelling in an west to east direction.
A post at Whittier, Calif., reported that it had observed the satellite moving east to west at 11:46 EDST, but scientists at the Observatory here tended to disregard the Whittier story because of the discrepancy in the direction of the object and because the time of the sighting disagreed sharply with their estimates.
Fred L. Whipple, professor of Astronomy and Director of the Smithsonian, who arrived during the evening from an International Geophysical Year conference in Washington, said of the Soviet satellite, "It is a great achievement on the Russians' part, and I commend them for it. We won the first round with the H-bomb; they won the second with the space satellite.
"The Russian satellite is an IGY project just as ours is," he added. "However, it does indicate a great potential in the area of missiles."
The first report of the satellite's launching was received at the Observatory at about 6:30 p.m. from an Associated Press release. J. Allen Hynek, the Associate Director of the Smithsonian in charge of the tracking program, and Kenneth H. Drummond, an administrative officer, immediately summoned what staff they could assemble and began to telephone "moonwatch" posts throughout the country.
Can Be Seen at Twilight
The first calls went to stations west of the Mississipi River. Drummond explained that the satellite could be seen only in the twilight hours and that such conditions prevailed only in the western part of the country at that time.
By 11 p.m., 80 out of the 160 tracking stations in the United States and abroad had been notified.
The observers in Columbus made a second sighting at 1:06 a.m., moments after having made radio contact with the satellite. It was visible for three to four seconds as it crossed the sky on a somewhat more southerly course than previously.
It was reported as giving off a "steady light." This was taken as an indication that the object may have some source of artificial light, since, otherwise, it would not have been visible at all in the middle-of-the-night darkness.
The launching of the Soviet satellite came as a complete surprise, Hynek reported. U. S. scientists questioned Russian representatives at an IGY meeting in Washington three days ago, but the Soviets refused to comment until they "had the satellite successfully launched."
The Soviet announcement of the accomplishment revealed that the satellite was travelling in an orbit approximately 560 miles above the earth. Its weight was said to be 86.3 kilograms, and scientists here estimated that it must be moving at about 18,000 miles per hour. At this speed it would circle the earth once every hour and 35 minutes.
The Russian report failed, however, to reveal the time of the satellite's launching. This information is vital to a mathematical computation of its exact location.