RE: Pierre Neirinck, 1926-2016

From: Ted Molczan via Seesat-l <>
Date: Mon, 4 Jan 2016 23:32:26 -0500
In the few years before Sputnik, it was not a secret that satellites were going to be launched. Exactly, when and by
whom was not known, but Pierre Neirinck was among the few who were ready and waiting for the opportunity to observe a
satellite. Some years ago, he sent me paper originals of some of his observation reports from the early years of
spaceflight. Below are a couple of his notes from August 1959, of Sputnik 3 (1958 Delta 2 / 00008):

The detailed information in those notes attests to Pierre's dedication to his hobby.

In the early years, he experimented with using film cameras for positional observation, but eventually decided that
binoculars and stopwatch were more practical, and used that method for the remainder of his life. He was a fanatic about
accuracy, like all of the best observers.

As Greg Roberts and Bob Christy have noted, Pierre worked for the Radio and Space Research Station, Slough, which later
became part of the Appleton Laboratory. One of his jobs was to run the prediction service that supported the volunteer
satellite observers of the U.K. equivalent of Operation Moonwatch. Dr. Desmond King-Hele, one the scientists whose
research benefitted, remembered Pierre in his memoire, A Tapestry of Orbits:

"The prediction service at RSRS was headed by David Smith during much of the 1960s. Before he left for the USA in 1968,
he recruited a keen French observer, Pierre Neirinck (who gradually took over more responsibility for the predictions in
the 1970s)." pp.85-86

"The national satellite prediction service remained at Datchet through the 1970s, though the RSRS received a new name,
the Appleton Laboratory, in 1972. During the 1970s, Pierre Neirinck was synonymous with the prediction service, usually
working or observing till late at night in the service of the satellites. His '24-hour service' was greatly appreciated
by the observers, but not always by the administrators of the Appleton Laboratory. Because of the continual cost-cutting
in the 1970s within the SERC [Science and Engineering Research Council], the prediction service was several times
threatened with closure. I had to protest to the SERC on those occasions, and also endured some rather traumatic
meetings of the Optical Tracking Sub-committee. Though closure was averted, the staff melted away, being reduced by 1979
to just one (or perhaps two - Pierre by day, and Pierre by night.)" p.138

Pierre retired from Appleton Laboratory in 1980, but he carried on observing satellites and analyzing their orbits. I
came to know him in the late 1980s, via Max White, after I had become a volunteer observer. Max frequently sent faxes
with orbital data and other useful information, which often included Pierre's orbital elements of spysats. I learned
that at the end of June 1983, the U.S. suddenly stopped publishing the elements of its LEO military satellites. Pierre
was among those who took it upon themselves to mitigate the loss of such data. I recall that he collaborated with David
Hopkins in this, who thankfully is still with us, and remains an active observer.

Max sometimes relayed messages from me to Pierre. Eventually, we began a direct correspondence, by conventional mail.
Rarely, when the news was urgent, we spoke by phone.

In October 1990, Pierre was one of three observers who independently spotted and tracked a bright satellite that
happened to catch their eye. The others were Daniel Karcher and Russell Eberst. Days later, when they compared their
notes, they realized that they all had observed the same unknown satellite on different nights, spanning less than a
week. Pierre pulled together all of their observations and fit a preliminary orbit, which enabled them to recover the
object and make more observations, resulting in more accurate elements.

Pierre found that it did not match any known orbit. Russell asked my opinion. I found that it was the payload of a
military shuttle mission that had been deployed in March, then suddenly vanished, leaving behind some debris. It was
called 1990-019B / 20516. Speculation had been that it had blown up (or been blown up), but now we knew that it had
moved to an 800 km, 65 deg orbit. News of our discovery made the front pages. Soon after, the satellite disappeared
without a trace. There were all sorts of theories. About 1997, the news leaked that it was Misty 1 - a stealthy version
of the KH-11, which happened to be Pierre's favourite type of satellite.

Apparently, Misty's optical signature suppression shield was activated only over Russia, because it was perceived to be
the only "detection threat." This makes intuitive sense. There were hundreds of bright satellites, and they all tended
to look alike. What was the chance that a member of the public who happened to spot Misty, would find it sufficiently
interesting to want to track it, just happen to have high-power binocs and stopwatch ready, and possess decades of
experience making precise, positional observations? What is the chance that three such individuals, who happen to know
one another, would have that same experience within days of one another? If you had asked me, I would have said close to
zero. But if it was going to happen, Pierre was going to be at the centre of it!

In 1996, after a several year hiatus from the hobby (due to the pressure of business), I resumed activity, and Pierre
and I soon resumed regular communication, first by fax - which he preferred, eventually by e-mail. It was not all about
data and numbers. We shared stories about our cats, discussed world affairs, all of the usual stuff. I found in Pierre a
great friend, as well as a wonderful collaborator. He was generous with his knowledge, always willing to share
information. Many times, he dug into his massive archive to pull out some historical observation or other data I needed.
I am grateful to have known him.

Pierre had the good fortune to be able to turn his passion for satellite observation into a career, and enjoy a lengthy
retirement, in reasonably good health. Years ago, he accurately predicted that he would be able to remain active in the
hobby until his late eighties. He downscaled his activity in accordance with his health, but he never lost his passion
for the hobby. May he rest in peace.

Below is my archive of Pierre's observations. It represents a small fraction of his contribution to our hobby.

Ted Molczan

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Received on Mon Jan 04 2016 - 22:33:06 UTC

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