Baker-Nunn Camera, Island Lagoon



The Baker-Nunn Camera at Island Lagoon – a frame from the 1965 Department of Supply film “Partners in Space”.

The camera is being operated by Wilfred (Fred) Warren, the long-time station manager at the camera site. Mr Warren looked after the Baker-Nunn camera from its earliest days at Range G, August 1958, until he left Island Lagoon in March 1970. (Thanks to Dave Squires for the identification of Fred Warren. The dates are from a document preserved by John Heath.)


The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory established a Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera at Range G, Woomera, in 1957, as part of the International Astrophysical Year. The camera was also used to support activities on the Range.

The Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera was moved to Island Lagoon in early July 1964 [1] (apparently planned for 1963), to a new building which sat at a location between the main Administration buildings and the Minitrack site. (The Minitrack array had already been moved from Range G.)


Island Lagoon

Anotated aerial view of Island Lagoon from about 6,000 feet (1,800m) – taken by Bill Schoene.

Here’s a larger version. And the unlabelled original.


Here’s a description written circa late 1968 –

“The Baker-Nunn camera, a special satellite tracking camera named for James G. Baker who designed the optical system and Joseph Nunn who designed the mounting and mechanical systems, provides one of the world’s most sensitive optical means of observing artificial earth satellites.

It is approximately 8 feet high, 10 feet wide and weighs approximately 3 tons. The camera combines an extremely fast optical system with a film transport using 55 mm, Royal-X film. The exceptional light-gathering capacity of the Baker-Nunn camera permits it to record star images 3000 times fainter than those seen by the unaided eye. The camera is capable of photographing a 6 meter sphere at the distance of the moon.

The first Baker-Nunn camera was put into operation in 1957 in time to photograph the first man-made satellite, SPUTNIK I, less than two weeks after launch. The Baker-Nunn cameras have photographed the first VANGUARD satellite, a 6-inch sphere, at a range of 3500 miles, and the larger Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO) at 23,000 miles. The Smithsonian’s Baker-Nunn system photographed the firing of the apogee-kick motor on SYNCOM II, mirror reflections from TELSTAR, and the tumble flashes from the PEGASUS satellite.”

– Text extracted from an information sheet preserved by John Heath. See the full 4-page, 800kb, PDF file, scanned by Colin Mackellar.

According to former Station Director Dennis Willshire, the Baker-Nunn was operated by a team of seven – there was one day operator, responsible for care and maintenance, and plus two-man evening and night shifts.

The Baker-Nunn Camera was moved to Orroral Valley in 1973, after DSS-41 Island Lagoon closed in December 1972.


Here are some images of the Baker-Nunn Camera in its initial location at Woomera Range G:


The Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera, at its first location on Range G – from Ivan Southall’s 1962 book “Woomera”.


The Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera, at its first location on Range G – a frame from a 1961 WRE film.


The Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera, at its first location on Range G – a frame from a 1961 WRE film.


The Baker-Nunn Camera, at its first location on Range G, with its Camera House being rolled back for operation –a frame from a 1961 WRE film.


A Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera image of the first US satellite, Explorer 1 – from the 1965 Department of Supply film “Partners in Space”.


A Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera image of the Vanguard satellite (launched March 1958) – from the Department of Supply film “Partners in Space”.


A Woomera Baker-Nunn Camera image of satellite 1959 Alpha 1. Reproduced in Ivan Southall’s 1962 book “Woomera”.


“This unusual photograph of the Pegasus satellite was taken by a Baker-Nunn tracking camera at the Smithsonian Institution’s Astrophysical Observing Station, Woomera, Australia.

The photo was made on Feb. 17, 1965; the aperture was f/l and the exposure time was about 60 seconds.

The satellite image shows variation in magnitude corresponding to the 20-second period of rotation of the satellite. The bright flash at the right-hand end of the track is probably due to reflection from the Pegasus ‘wings’.

On this pass, Pegasus was directly overhead about 445 miles above the earth, and passing through the constellation Canis Major when photographed.”

Text and image from 1966 NASA Publication, EP-28, “Tracking”.


And the camera once it had moved to Island Lagoon –

Baker Nunn

Baker-Nunn site, Island Lagoon, 1971.

The housing over the camera has been rolled off to the left, exposing the Baker-Nunn Camera.

The main Guard Hut for Island Lagoon Station is visible just above the water tower at right. Above it is DSS41, 1.3km to the NE, and the DSS41 Coll. Tower is visible on the horizon, 2.7km away. To the immediate right of the Coll. Tower is the smaller, – just visible – WWV antenna.

Photo from the 1971 DSS41 Island Lagoon Photographic Record.

Large, Larger (4MB).

With thanks to Don Cocks, via John Heath. Scan: Colin Mackellar.

Baker Nunn

Baker-Nunn Camera House, Island Lagoon.

The upper ‘storey’ is a protective cover for the Camera. For operations, it was rolled down the track at left to move it out of the line of sight (as in the 1971 photo above).

Photo from the Tidbinbilla Archives. Scan: Colin Mackellar.

Baker Nunn

The Baker-Nunn Camera, in March 1971, about two years before it was moved to Orroral Valley.

Photo preserved by John Heath. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Three years to the day before the first manned lunar landing, this photo of Gemini 10 (with John Young and Mike Collins onboard) and the Gemini 8 Agena Target Vehicle was taken from Woomera by the Baker-Nunn tracking camera.

Photo and notes by Ed von Renouard. Ed writes:

“Woomera, 21.07.1966, 0523 local time.

Gemini 10 and Agena prior to rendezvous, Gemini below and to the right, separation appr. 2 miles, slant range appr. 700 miles.

The Baker-Nunn Camera was tracking at appr. twice the rate of the two vehicles in order to overtake and photograph them (shortly after this exposure, they were lost below the horizon).

The four stars [click image for the full picture] are small stars in Taurus.”

Key. Thanks to Ed von Renouard, via Hamish Lindsay. Scan by Colin Mackellar.


Dave Squires shares the story of how he came to work at the Woomera Baker-Nunn:

I worked at the Island Lagoon Baker-Nunn site from April 1967 to April 1969.  There was always one Yank assigned to Woomera for a 2-year ‘tour’, so to speak, and I was the lucky guy for that time period.  The rest of the crew were Aussies and English, although there was one Czech New-Australian. 

Although I left there almost 40 years ago, I think I still remember the names of all the blokes I worked with, and many of the details of the site.   

I lived at the Senior Mess in the Village, and thoroughly enjoyed my two years there. Had some great mates, and I stay in touch with one in Perth to this day. 

The Baker-Nunn Camera was operated by one of the so-called bureaus of the Smithsonian Institution,  Washington, DC.  This “bureau” was the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Astophysical Observatory is still very much in existence, and is very closely associated with the Harvard College Observatory.

The Smithsonian operated 12 Baker-Nunn cameras around the world. There were, to the best of my knowledge 18 B-N cameras built, the military got the other six and put them in Chile, Norway, Johnston Island and Sand Island in the South Pacific, Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada – and somewhere else I can’t remember. [Kerrie Dougherty (January 2022) suggest that the other B-N, part of Project Space Track, was on the South Island of New Zealand.]

Of the Smithsonian stations, 9 were staffed by Americans, the Woomera / Island Lagoon site by DoS personnel and the one Yank as I mentioned above, but the stations in India and Japan were operated strictly by citizens of those countries. 


Baker Nunn

Map from the information sheet quoted above.


My first duty station was Jupiter, Florida, in the summer of 1963. I was a Massachusetts native, and had never ventured out of the northeast of the States, so going to Florida was like going to a foreign country for me. I spent 2 years there, then went back to Cambridge to work on a new project, what we called the Geodetic Camera using a K-50 (I think) lens. The Smithsonian was moving some of their Baker-Nunns to new locations in the mid-l960s, and wanted this smaller ‘geodetic camera’ to tie in the new and old sites. 

In August 1966 I was sent to the lovely island of Curaçao, in the Netherlands Antilles to work with this new camera. The Baker-Nunn which had been there had already been relocated to Natal, Brazil. I spent only 3 months there, and then was sent to Natal, where once-again I was reunited with the Baker-Nunn in November 1966.

In April 1967 another telegram arrived and informed me that I was being reassigned to Woomera, and so, after a two-week training session on our timing system back in Cambridge, I flew to the Land Down Under in late April 1967. I was very happy to be settling down for a couple of years. 

Accurate timing was critical to our operation. The B-N could take wonderful photos of sun-illuminated satellites, or of those that blinked, against a known star background. (The F1 system had tremendous light-gathering ability, and could get images of stars thousands of times fainter than the human eye could see. There was no magnification). But, without accurate time recorded on the film, the data were useless. We had to know where the satellite was against a known star background, and at what time it was there. Our timing system (clock) was built by the Electronic Engineering Company of California, and was accurate to +/- 10 microseconds. This was fantastic 40 years ago!

When I arrived in Woomera in 1967, the Minitrack site had already closed. There were just the 85 foot dish and the B-N at Island Lagoon. We worked every night throughout the year, except Christmas eve/night.

We worked shift work, sometimes 4pm – midnight, sometimes midnight – 8am. For one week every seven weeks we worked Mon–Fri. 8am–4pm.  Normal hours!

Back in those days there were perhaps 2-3 dozen different satellites that we routinely tracked.

Although I was employed by the Smithsonian Institution, who operated the 12 camera sites, we were working under a contract with NASA – so they were funding the operations of these sites around the world. In June or July of 1969, NASA did not renew the contract with the Smithsonian, but instead awarded it to the Bendix Corporation. Bendix operated the cameras for a few more years, but I’m not sure what happened after that. I know that at least a couple of the B-Ns have been significantly modified and are being used for some kind of celestial studies to this day.

After Island Lagoon, I was scheduled to report to the B-N station on Mt. Haleakala on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Needless to say I was looking forward to this very much, but fortunately I had taken (what was supposed to be) a temporary position with the old ‘Center for Short-Lived Phenomena’ at the SAO headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. before heading off to Hawaii. The terrible news about the termination of the contract came while I was in this temporary position, so I was able to stay there and the job eventually became permanent. Many of the people I had worked with on the B-Ns were all of a sudden out of a job. These were not US Federal Government jobs, and thus there was no job protection.

The Baker-Nunns were really wonderful, a superb blending of amazingly good optics and wonderful mechanical engineering. BUT, they were very unforgiving if one did something wrong! This happened to me a couple of times when I was working with new ‘observers’ (our job title), and we had to spend hours taking parts of the camera apart and fixing whatever was wrong and then putting things back together again. As was that little girl, when the camera was good it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid.

Special thanks to Dave Squires for these memories.




[1] An internal Department of Supply Memorandum dated 8th June 1964, preserved by Don Cocks. Plus, another document has Fred Warren starting at Island Lagoon on 10th July 1964.