WRE HAD Rocket Experiments

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Since 1962, Australia’s fledgling space program had been conducting a series of high altitude density (HAD) experiments at Woomera using a two-stage HAD rocket designed and built by the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE).

Each experiment ejected a 2m diameter inflatable radar-reflective spherical balloon at 130-Km high to fall at speeds of up to 3200 Km/hr until it collapsed at about 30-Km high. Analysis of radar measurements of the falling sphere produced data on air density and temperature as well as wind direction and speed.

Scientists believed simultaneous launches at Carnarvon and Woomera would yield valuable knowledge of “atmospheric tides … [and the] zonal travel of mesospheric disturbances.” [1]

Getting ready for a launch at Quobba: Photo – Glen Secombe
Getting ready for a launch at Quobba: Photo – Glen Secombe

The Carnarvon launches

A transportable rocket launcher set up in mid-1964 on a supposedly dry clay pan near the race course between the Carnarvon Space Tracking Station (CRO) and the Town of Carnarvon commenced launching HAD rockets 48 Km into Shark Bay in a south-west direction well past the town. CRO lacked Woomera’s sophisticated kine-theodolite optical tracking system so a VHF beacon installed in each rocket enabled AcqAid to track them and provide pointing data for FPQ-6. The launcher-CRO interface was tested with a few trial firings - and the ‘comedy’ began.

The AcqAid antennas (set to linear polarisation to match the beacon and giving an extra 3db gain) failed to acquire the first trial rocket; the signal continuously fading in and out. A spare beacon set up on the FPQ-6 collimation tower indicated no problems so more trial firings were conducted. The next acquisition attempt also failed; probably hindered by the stronger signal from the collimation tower beacon which had unfortunately been left on. An argument ensued as to whether circular polarisation on the AcqAid antennas would be better suited to the fast spin-stabilisation of the rockets; it was decided to try one antenna on left polarization and the other on right. AcqAid was now able to track and provide pointing data to FPQ-6. [2]

But then it was FPQ-6’s turn to create problems. They tracked a couple of launches successfully but an engineer had forgotten to remove the ‘write-lockout ring’ on the computer magnetic-tape reel consequently no data was recorded. He can still remember the look of horror on the Operations Supervisor face when he told him. [3]

During all this the only person enjoying the trials was Hamish Lindsay with a different sort of 'acquisition aid': "My job was to man a 20mm Oerlikon Mark 20 gun sight modified to connect to the Q6 to slave it to follow the movements of the gun sight. I followed the rocket’s French chalk it as it drifted with the upper atmosphere currents so the Q6 could find and lock onto the signal to track the drift. I was very impressed when I pushed my shoulders into the padded shoulder brackets and watched the dish precisely follow my every movement. Gave me quite a feeling of power. I had no trouble spotting the French chalk, but had to be quick setting the sights on it as I could not see the rocket sending the balloon up until the chalk blossomed out and dissipated fairly quickly, and then we had nothing to locate the balloon."[4]

Launch trailer stuck in the mud: Photo – Glen Secombe
Launch trailer stuck in the mud: Photo – Glen Secombe

Meanwhile down at the launch pad a different ‘comedy’ had been developing. “Large rockets had never been fired before away from Woomera or other ranges. The first launch site was selected just out of town, on what appeared to be level and solid ground. A combination of high tides and heavy rain turned it into a swamp. … [When they had finished] the firing team left behind a trail of hopelessly bogged trucks and graders belonging to the Town Council. A good portion of the town's population watched these activities with interest, crowded into the racecourse grandstand which was conveniently adjacent, and listening to a running commentary.” [5]

Read Glenn Secombe’s ‘Carnarvon Capers' for a more intimate personal account and additional photos.

The clay pan was not as firm as it was thought. As each rocket was fired, its exhaust apparently created an increasing depression in the soft clay causing the two rear pads of the launcher base to sink a little deeper, which incrementally increased the launch elevation angle. Eventually part of the final rocket impacted on the edge of the town airport rather than far into Shark Bay and another part on the levy bank near the Gascoyne Hotel where a PWD crew was working on the water main. Leading-hand Ray Sharp recalls it clearly: “A large piece of the rocket just missed one of my crew. He stormed off, reckoning I was trying to kill him”; Ray still has a small rocket fragment as a memento. [6]

AcqAid Engineer Ed Goldsmith recalls that final launch from the claypans: "The elevation and azimuth angles become constant shortly after launch and then instead of the elevation starting to lower as the signal strength decreased (as the rocket started its descent on a parabola away from us) as was usually the case, the angles remained constant and the signal strength started to increase! It only took a few seconds for me to realise that this meant that the rocket was coming back down towards us! For the life of me I don’t know why I remained calm and watch[ed] the indications until the signal ceased abruptly." [2]

Everyone learnt from those first rocket firings. AcqAid and FPQ-6 realised that ‘mission check lists’ were as necessary for local exercises as they were for NASA missions. The launch crew learnt to check their elevation angle before each firing. However, caution being the better part of valour, the launch site was moved to the rocky foundation of cliffs near Quobba Station, 60Km north of CRO. The public was invited to view the next launch series from a vantage point near Quobba Point lighthouse. But before the experiments resumed, a light aircraft carrying a beacon, was flown over the new launch site with Tito Teraci dropping aluminium pudding-bowls to be sure FPQ-6 could distinguish the radar echoes of an aluminium bowl from that of the launch vehicle (the aircraft).

The Quobba launches were more successful. In mid-July rockets were launched within 1½ hours of local midday; two at Quobba and four at Woomera. They all reached a height of about 115 Km. Then late in October four attempts at Quobba yielded two results; one shortly before dawn and one shortly after dusk. More launches followed in May 1965. [7]

These simultaneous ‘falling sphere’ experiments are still considered one of the best sets of seasonal atmosphere data ever gathered.


[1] Minister for Supply, press release, September, 1964. Note: CRO was the only other place in Australia with radar accurate enough for the experiments
[2] Goldsmith, E., email to PD
[3] Main, P., email to PD, 31 July 2005
[4] Lindsay, H., email to PD, ?????
[5] Morton, P., Fire Across the Desert; Woomera and the Anglo-Australian Joint Project 1946-1980. 1989, p403
[6] Sharp, R., phone conversation with PD, May 2005
[7] NAA: PP538/S2, B87, DoS item 93, 22 October 1964

We also thank Tito Teraci for his input to this page, and Kerrie Dougherty and Bruce Henderson for their help in sourcing information.

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