Fall 2007 Issue

Amateur Radio and the International Geophysical Year 1957–1958

Fifty years ago the International Council for Scientific Unions (now known as the International Council for Science, or ICSU) oversaw an 18-month period of worldwide scientific exploration and research known as the International Geophysical Year, or IGY. Amateur radio operators were invited to participate in the research as it related to propagation. Here WA2VVA documents some of the amateur-radio-related research that took place during the IGY.


Figure 1. This is the first page of the first issue of the “PRP News,” a special newsletter that published reports of significance and useful information for “PRP Observers.”

The International Geophysical Year (IGY) was an 18-month period starting in July 1957 and ending in December 1958. Timed to coincide with the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle, it was a cooperative effort of scientists, amateur as well as professional, from around the world.
Unlike most scientific endeavors, unskilled observers were invited to take part, the idea being that if competent people could be organized to make coordinated observations around the world, the amount of data collected would be that much greater. “Project Moonwatch” was the name given a satellite-tracking program using amateur astronomers to visually track the artificial satellites launched during the IGY. A separate program named “Project Moonbeam” invited amateur radio operators to track these same satellites using radio equipment not uncommon in many radio shacks of the era. The November 1957 issue of QST published the official invitation made by Dr. Pickering of the Jet Propulsion Lab.

Over the past year and a half QST has carried a number of articles describing various sections of the Minitrack system of satellite tracking as developed at the Naval Research Laboratory. The NRL activity is part of the work of a special group in the U.S. National Committee for the IGY. Dr. Pickering, head of this Working Group on Tracking Computation, issues here an official invitation to qualified amateur groups to participate in the volunteer satellite-tracking program—now known as “Project Moonbeam.”

Through the efforts of the ARRL, which coordinated amateur radio activities through its “Propagation Research Project,” VHF enthusiasts also collected data on various modes of VHF propagation, including aurora, meteor scatter, transequatorial and sporadic-E. A special newsletter called the “PRP News” published reports of significance and useful information for “PRP Observers,” including beacon frequencies, identification of special observing days called the “world days,” and myriad other items of interest. Figure 1 is a reproduction of the first issue.

The propagation data collected through the “PRP News” was to be analyzed by PRP staffers and the U.S. Air Force through its Cambridge Research Center. Looking for patterns in monthly heard and worked reports, it was hoped that new discoveries might be made, particularly with regard to transequatorial propagation. This mode of propagation was discovered by radio amateurs in 1947 and was a major reason for recruiting them during the IGY.

The PRP expressed interest in all forms of propagation save one—tropospheric ducting. Yet it was via tropospheric ducting that arguably the greatest amateur accomplishment of the IGY took place.

From “PRP News” January 1957:

What We’re Not Interested In

Reports of ground-wave work out to 75 or 100 miles will not be of use in PRP. Likewise, we are not concerned with contacts made by tropospheric propagation. This includes those due to air mass boundary bending and duct effects caused by the changing weather pattern, and those due to scattering from the troposphere. Either of these will provide contacts out to perhaps 500 miles, the former with irregular, strong signals, and the latter with consistent, weak ones. Since we are studying ionospheric propagation only, reports of such tropospheric work are not solicited.

Click here to return to Fall 2007 highlights

Click here to subscribe to VHF


© Copyright 2007, CQ Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced or republished, including posting to a website, in part or in whole, by any means, without the express written permission of the publisher, CQ Communications, Inc. Hyperlinks to this page are permitted.