A Short History of the "Kettering Group"

The text below was published in the book "Cytringainian Farewell, Kettering Grammar/Boys School (1577-1993)". It is Geoff Perry's account the satellite tracking work done at the Kettering Grammar/Boys School. The text is unedited. I have only added a few pictures. Anyone printing a large extract of Geoff Perry's text must obtain the permission of the Secretary of The Old Cytringanians, c/o Rex Moore, 14 Cranford Road, Barton Seagrave, Kettering, NN15 5JH, UK.

Sven Grahn


The extra-curricular satellite research studies

Geoffrey E Perry MBE CPhys FInstP

I am frequently asked, "How did you get started with the satellite work?" There were several milestones which I will list chronologically. In 1944, a V-2 fell a few miles from my home in Braintree with a double bang. At the time we did not know what it was but as soon as it was revealed to have been a rocket I realised that `space travel' was no longer a wild dream. Then my late cousin gave me, for Christmas 1951, a copy of Arthur C Clarke's The Exploration of Space setting out the principles based on fundamental physics. Thirdly, I anticipated that the Oxbridge Scholarship papers would include a question/essay on the International Geophysical Year and so I read up the topic which included plans for the USA and the USSR to launch small satellites. As it happened, there was nothing in the exams about the IGY but when Sputnik 1 was launched on 4 October 1957 I was mentally prepared for it. Russell Gladden, the senior science master, made several visual observations of its rocket, getting up before dawn to do so. I did not get up to see it but I did see and photograph Sputnik 2, which carried the dog, Laika, into orbit one month later. John Osborne, of Stowe School, played a recording of the signals from Sputnik 1 at the Annual Meeting of the Science Masters' Association in Leeds during the Christmas vacation of 1957. The whole-octave Doppler shift in pitch was remarkable and he promised me a copy for use as a teaching aid - it never came.

When radio amateur G3FOZ, Derek Slater, was appointed to the staff as senior chemistry master, following the untimely death of Fred Lawson, I realised that here was somebody with the means to let me listen to the satellites that I had been observing visually and photographically for the past two years. Without Derek's expertise, equipment and co-operation this account would never have come to be written - but I will leave him to give his own version.

We achieved success at our first attempt to receive signals from the newly launched Sputnik 4 , very early one Monday morning in May 1960. Tape recordings were made throughout the week and then a borrowed signal generator was returned to Cyril Dobson and Derek's CR-100 reverted to use by his Radio Club. I had my Doppler recording, and that was that. Actually, we missed the opportunity to share in a world news scoop. On the Friday, signals were received later than expected. When asked why, I responded that the satellite must have moved higher. It had - unintentionally! The Russians had tried to recover a spherical capsule containing a dummy cosmonaut but the spaceship had been pointing in the wrong direction when the rocket motor fired.

At a course for physics teachers, held at University College, London, in the summer of 1961, I learnt that the Radio & Space Research Station at Slough supplied predictions to amateur observers and I applied to be added to their mailing list. Until then I had relied on predictions printed in the Daily Telegraph. Predictions during the autumn half term holiday indicated that the American Discoverer 32 was transmitting in the short-wave band and so the apparatus was reassembled and observations were made until it decayed. These were forwarded to Slough and were said to be `useful'. It was suggested that we might monitor Discoverer 36 and we decided to wait until the Christmas holiday when it would be nearer to decay. Unfortunately its batteries failed after we had monitored it for a few weeks but, by adding our Discoverer 32 decay curve to the observations, I was able to predict the decay date with some accuracy.

The USSR inaugurated its Cosmos series of satellites in April 1962 and this has provided me with a source of objects to monitor to this day (as of 6 July 1994 we have now reached Cosmos 2282). Concentration on a sub-set of Cosmos satellites which disappeared from orbit after flights lasting only eight days or less - long before they would have decayed naturally - was the key to unlocking many of the secrets of the Soviet military space programme carried out under the Cosmos label.

In that summer term two officers at RAF Henlow wrote to ask if they might visit the School. Wishing to establish a satellite monitoring project for their cadets, they had been to the Minitrack station at Winkfield. On expressing their dismay at the amount of expensive apparatus in use there they had been told, "Why don't you see the folks at Kettering Grammar School? They are doing useful work with `backyard equipment'." It was important to choose a satellite which would permit a `live' demonstration. The Russian Cosmos 5 filled the bill but, as soon as I heard it, it was obvious that its signals were of an unusual character. A periodic variation in pitch was superimposed on the normal Doppler shift. After his A-levels, Robert Jones made a study of the variation which indicated that it was due to a partly faulty solar battery.

During a trip to Wales in the autumn half-term holiday I called at the physics department at Aberystwyth, having read that they had also made observations of Cosmos 5. Ken Edwards, the chief technician, had a large collection of pen-recordings of the signals which showed that they ceased completely when the satellite was in the Earth's shadow, confirming our hypothesis.

The development of our computational capability over the years has been quite extraordinary. Initially we employed slide rules and graphical techniques. In 1964 through the friendship of Ron Smith, we used Autocode with the Elliott 803 computer at the CWS corset factory at Desborough to analyse pupils' visual observations of the Echo 2 balloon satellite, moving on, with Ron, to Algol programming on SATRA's 4120. I purchased a hand-cranked mechanical calculator before electronic pocket calculators came on the scene and, in 1972, I was given a 30-step programmable desk-top calculator by the US Ambassador, Walter Annenberg. Within a week of taking delivery it had been used to identify a constellation of Soviet navsats. Brief use of the ICL 1900 at County Hall, necessitating trips to the Technical College in St Mary's Road to prepare the data, ended with the arrival of the Commodore 4032 which brought computing with programming in Basic into the laboratory. Today, members of the Group all have their own PCs with DOS or Windows. My daughter, remembering the excitement of the early days, dismisses the modern technological map displays and prediction print-outs with, "I don't call that tracking!"

When Cosmos 112 was launched on 17 March 1966, it quickly became apparent that there was something very different about it besides its departure from the standard 65 inclination to the Equator. Signal duration was shorter and it was being controlled from a more northerly station than usual. Examination of its initial ground track revealed that it could not have been launched from Baikonur. I wrote a letter to the editor of FLIGHT International claiming that the USSR was using a new launch site but it produced little or no reaction. There were more launches at similar inclinations but it was not possible to locate the origin precisely. When Cosmos 129 was launched in October 1966 I phoned my data to Ron Smith at SATRA. When I collected the output I saw that my orbit-count differed from US data, being three too many. This, together with the inclination of 64.6 instead of 65 led me to realise that Cosmos 129 had also been launched from the new site. The intersection of its initial ground track with that of Cosmos 112 lay some 200 miles south of Archangelsk. I announced the co-ordinates of the site at a meeting of the British Interplanetary Society in London and followed it up with a second letter to FLIGHT. Once again there was no initial reaction but the late Dr Charles S Sheldon II, of the Congressional Research Service of the US Library of Congress, wished to include details of the site in a report. His manuscript had been returned by the CIA with that section marked `Classified'. His reaction was to alert the press to what I had written in FLIGHT and on the day after we broke up for the Christmas holiday, The Times ran the story under the by-line `From our Washington correspondent'. My life changed from that point.

It rained on the morning of the Friday of the 1967 autumn half-term holiday. It started when I was on the fourth tee of Corby's municipal golf course and I got soaked to the skin. I went to the Labs in the afternoon and switched on the CR-100. It was not long before I heard a short burst of irregular pulses (hear signals from Cosmos 186 recorded the day efter in Stockholm, Sweden) . I ran the tape recorder and recorded further 30-second bursts at two minute intervals. In 1966 Ken Edwards had sent a pen record of some strange signals for me to identify. They, too, consisted of 30-second bursts of irregular pulses at two minute intervals and proved to have been from Cosmos 140, a precursor of the ill-fated Soyuz 1. My signals were from the first test of a Soyuz since Komarov's tragic death.


Click on the picture to see another version

On the following day I had a phone call from Peter Fairley, of the London Evening Standard, who was off to Cape Canaveral for the first launch of a Saturn V. As the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian revolution was imminent he wondered if anything of interest had happened. I said, "No - apart from an unmanned test of a Soyuz." The Soviet Union had yet to announce the launch and he broke the story with the banner headline, `Schoolboys Tune In To A Space Secret', in the midday edition. Two world scoops within twelve months! Clearly this was no accident. Old Cytringanian, Robin Turner, of the Daily Express, happened to be in Kettering for his brother's wedding and found me at the Labs on the Sunday, listening to the signals. The CR-100 was becoming temperamental, needing a smart tap with the hand from time to time, and Robin remarked that I `could do with something better'. I told him that I knew of a second-hand RA17 which could be had for the cost of refurbishment - I had already applied unsuccessfully for a grant to purchase it. Next day he phoned my wife and told her that he had persuaded his editor to `go halves' with Racal and give me a new receiver. I was lecturing to the BIS at the City University on the Tuesday evening. Before the lecture I was presented with a brand new, state of the art, transistorised RA217 by the chairman of Racal, (now Sir) Ernest Harrison and John Young, assistant to the editor of the Daily Express. Their gift removed all the uncertainty whilst retaining all of the pleasure.

I am also often asked how the Kettering Group came into being. Like Topsy, in Uncle Tom's Cabin - it just grew. The first pupil to be entrusted with the key to the Labs in order to make an observation was my nextdoor neighbour from Southgate Drive, David Sinnett, who helped me occasionally at weekends. The first pupils to make regular observations were the sixth form girls from Kettering High School who came to us for physics, chemistry and mathematics and who sat in the empty Physics A during some of their free periods as there was nowhere else for them to go. One day, as I went off to teach in another room, I said to them, "If that thing starts to bleep, note the time for me on the blackboard." That was the real start of pupil involvement. It soon paid dividends. FLIGHT reported that Cosmos 32 had decayed on 18 June 1964 at 1200 12 hours - no better than saying that it had come down on Thursday! Barbara Jacques and Derek had logged it at 1129 BST that day and so I wrote a letter to the editor of FLIGHT narrowing down the time, signing it `Barbara M Jacques, G E Perry & J D Slater'. A letter came back addressed to Miss Jacques and her pupils. After we had clarified the position, Ken Owen from FLIGHT visited the School and published a two-page article, `Kettering's Cosmos Scholars', in their space special issue of 22 July 1965. That was the first international media exposure that we received.

In 1974 I began receiving regularly by airmail two line orbital element sets for all objects currently in orbit. These are produced in NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain complex by US Space Command and are distributed to bona fide researchers by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington DC. The elsets enable one to compute a satellite's position, velocity and acceleration at a particular instant and to predict its subsequent motion. Although we were receiving signals from only a few satellites, I realised that these elsets were a valuable source of data from which deductions could be made about the purpose of various classes of Soviet satellites which we could not monitor. Individual pupils were allocated different sub-sets of satellites and by collecting the elsets, analysing plane-spacings, orbital periods, etc., they were able to infer the operational status of communications, navigation, missile early warning and electronic intelligence gathering constellations. The results were published from time to time, jointly in their and my names, in the technical press and US Senate and Congressional Reports.

In January 1966, a Swedish student sent me a tape recording of signals which he believed to be from Cosmos 104, asking me for confirmation. Our association has continued to this day and Sven Grahn, the first overseas member of the Kettering Group, is now the General Manager, Science Systems Division, of the Swedish Space Corporation and has been responsible for their Viking and Freja satellites. Other adults in the UK and abroad , with interests, have worked closely with us over the years. They are professional people with expertise in electronic engineering, communications, meteorology, photographic interpretation, etc., but all share the excitement of participation in a hobby of amateur observation and analysis of space programmes, many of which are still considered to be secret.

As the number of adults from the UK and overseas, associated with the Group increased and the assured change of the School's name upon disorganisation along comprehensive lines loomed larger, I decided to drop the words `Grammar School' from the name and since the mid-'seventies published observations and results under the title of The Kettering Group. At my suggestion, John Marshall produced the logo of a satellite in orbit around the rose from the Grammar School blazer badge. The centre of the rose was at the focus of the orbit since the Group was frequently the focus of media attention and the orbit was elliptical to support the popular belief that I am eccentric!

I never claimed that no one else knew about the USSR's northern launch site - only that I was the first to publicly disclose its use and reveal its approximate location. Somebody looked up the co-ordinates and gave it the name Plesetsk. The USSR did not acknowledge its existence until more than 17 years later, in 1983 Pravda articles by V Gubarev. Charles Sheldon called at the School in October 1967 when he was motoring around the UK with his wife. A friendship and Cupertino developed which lasted until he died in 1980. He quoted my work in Soviet Space Programs, 1971-75.

Hence, with the passage of time, these Kettering techniques have given a highly professional, consistently positive identification to many aspects of the Soviet space program from completely unclassified, private sources, which are not matched by any public release of data by the Soviet, United States, or British governments. The general public interested in data on Soviet flights owes a debt to the Kettering Grammar School whose published findings in a few instances may have been factors toward influencing the official bureaucracies to ease up on the rigid suppression of what is essentially non-sensitive information about space flights. He invited me to contribute to the 1971-75 study and to collaborate with him on the 1976-1980 study. After he died, the Library asked me to complete the work in collaboration with Marcia Smith, one of his specialists, who is continuing his work. I count Marcia as a Kettering Group member and we worked together on the 1981-87 study.

I was appointed an Ordinary Member of the Order of the British Empire in the 1973 New Year Honours List for "founding and leading the Satellite Tracking Group, Kettering Grammar School". In 1974 I received the Royal Astronomical Society's Jackson-Gwilt Medal and Gift - the 50 was spent on an antenna and pre-amplifier. The Universities of Loughborough, Reading and Leicester and the Open University conferred Honorary Masters Degrees on me and I have accepted all of these with the realisation that it was the work of the Group that was being recognised. The Kettering Group was awarded the Royal Aero Club's Prince of Wales Cup for team effort during 1983 and a large number of members, including three from the USA and Sven from Sweden, attended the presentation at the Science Museum in December 1984. A personal honour which gave me great pleasure was one of the first Institute of Physics Teachers of Physics Awards in 1986 and I was very pleased to see that John Marshall, now at Beaconsfield High School, received one of those awards this year.

Relations with the media have blossomed over the years becoming a far cry from the days when I had to seek permission from J K "when you've heard one, you've heard them all" Dudley to give a story to the Evening Telegraph. As our work became more well-known and valued I adopted the policy of notifying Reuters of our `discoveries' and then waiting for the press and TV to contact me. The link with Peter Fairley continued when he moved to ITN and I was a member of their Studio Panel in 1971 for Apollo 15. In 1975, Frank Miles, then science editor at ITN, persuaded (now Sir) David Nicholas to invest his budget in using our Group for their coverage of the Apollo-Soyuz mission when American and Russians linked in space with Frank's `handshake over Bognor' - but that is another long story. The radio at the School, with Derek and the boys, was linked by direct line to the pen-recorder with me in the studio in London. When I retired from teaching in 1984, David asked me to work exclusively for ITN and our agreement has been regularly renewed. Although it is increasingly difficult to get space stories on news bulletins, I am still ITN's space consultant. Furthermore, the work of the Group continues - only the pupil segment no longer exists.


Postscript by Sven Grahn: Here is a clip from an 8-mm movie that I made during a visit to Kettering in August 1967.

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