Tracking Telescopes

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What was that missile doing?

Researchers wanted to know how high and how far a test vehicle went after launch. But a few scientists, notably Dr. James Edson and his brother-in-law, Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, felt it was just as important to observe the missile in flight to see what it was doing. To that end, they helped design the first tracking telescopes at WSMR to produce a zoomed-in, cinematic record of a missile’s flight for later analysis. Tracking telescopes also recorded intercepts between missiles and targets, providing researchers with early “miss distance” data - the distance between a missile and its intended target in case of a failed intercept.

Developed first here at WSMR, by the 1950s tracking telescopes were considered vital data collection tools and were stationed across the range often at high elevation to maximize visibility and reduce the effects of atmospheric turbulence.

At their core, tracking telescopes are simple instruments that combine a powerful optical telescope with a cinematic high speed camera, and place them on a rotating mount. Tracking telescopes used the same timing system as cinetheodolites in order to correlate the film records of both instruments.