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Posted on Nov 13, 2012 |

Marker Honors XU Students and Project Moonwatch

Marker Honors XU Students and Project Moonwatch

Left to right: Marco Fatuzzo, chair of the XU Physics Department; Brian Van Flandern, son of the late Tom Van Flandern who was Team Leader for the Cincinnati Moonwatch Project; Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune; Terry Endres, president of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society; Barbara Van Flandern; Michael Van Flandern (son); Connie Van Flandern (daughter); Ohio Senator Bill Coley; Dennis Smith, Deputy Team Leader of the Cincinnati Moonwatch Team.

Last month the Cincinnati Astronomical Society unveiled a historical marker at its Cleves (OH) headquarters that honors “Project Moonwatch,” a satellite-tracking project at the dawn of the Space Race. Cincinnati Moowatch monitored the skies for seven years, from 1957-1964.

Unveiled Oct. 4, the 55th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, the marker from the Ohio Historical Society commemorates professional and amateur astronomers, including then-CAS president Dr. Alex Presnell and Xavier University students Dennis Smith and Thomas Van Flandern, who served as team leaders.

Organized by the National Academy of Sciences, Cincinnati Moonwatch helped find and track the orbits of the first satellites, which were not made public. Their data helped scientists understand how satellite orbits changed with solar activity and other events in the upper atmosphere and, says Smith, provided the basis for future technology.

“The achievements of the Cincinnati Moonwatch Team and Xavier students were to become instrumental in the development of GPS (global positioning satellites),” says Smith, who graduated XU in 1964. “Some of the very early satellites used to guide Polaris submarine launched missiles were picked up optically by the Moonwatch Team. The International Space Station is a reality today in some measure due to data furnished by Moonwatch teams worldwide.”

Smith is now president of Paper Products Company in Cincinnati. Van Flandern, a 1962 XU physics alumnus who died in 2009, earned a PhD from Yale and later served with the U.S. Naval Observatory. Asteroid #52266 is named in his honor.

The marker at the Cleves site, says, in part, “On these grounds from 1957 to 1964, the Cincinnati Moonwatch Team, principally under the leadership of Tom Van Flandern, spent thousands of man hours optically observing and recording data to verify the positions of satellites in space.”

Photo courtesy Xavier University.

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