Friday, 26 May 2017

Brightness variation of USA 276 (NROL-76)

click image to enlarge
Last night was very clear again. I observed two passes of the new USA 276 (2017-022A) satellite, also known under its NRO launch number NROL-76. It was launched early this month by SpaceX, and I wrote in detail about this mystery payload in my post from yesterday.

The image above, taken with a Canon EOS 60D and EF 2.0/35 mm lens, shows the satellite passing over the roof of my house during the first pass (00:36 local time, 22:36 UT). It was bright and an easy naked eye object at mag +2.5 near culmination.

During the second pass, 02:06 local time (00:06 UT) it was somewhat fainter, mag +3 to +3.5, but still visible naked eye. Below are two images from this pass:

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

During this second pass, I visually seemed to note some brightness variation, notably after culmination.

Analysis of the pixel brightness of the trails in my imagery seems to confirm this. They show an irregular brightness variation, notably in the third image (the last of the images above), that looks like it is a combination of several periods.

The diagrams below show the curve obtained from 4 images, and a detail curve of the third image where brightness variation seems most pronounced. Pixel values of the trails were measured with IRIS.

click diagram to enlarge

click diagram to enlarge
This variation could hint at some form of spin stabilization, or alternatively the presence of some rotating element perhaps.

I did not note this variation during earlier passes, so  it could perhaps strongly depend on the viewing angle.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Observing USA 276, the odd NROL-76 payload

click image to enlarge

The image above shows USA 276 passing over the roof of my house last night. USA 276 is the mystery payload of the May 1 SpaceX NROL-76 launch from Cape Canaveral.

Also visible in the image are three rocket boosters: the r/b of the classified Milstar 3 launch, and two Russian objects. Skies surely are crowded these days...

The photograph above was shot near 3:07 local time (1:07 UT) during the second of two consecutive passes. During the first pass, near 1:30 local time (23:30 UT), I obtained this video record:

USA 276 was quite faint during the first pass (I could not see it by naked eye from Leiden town center). During the second pass it was brighter, attaining mag. +3 near culmination, visible to the naked eye without problem. Due to its low orbital altitude it was very fast: the object is in a 389 x 409 km, 50.0 degree inclined orbit.

After its May 1 launch, there was a lot of discussion among our observers. The launch azimuth seemed to suggest a 50 degree orbital inclination. That would be odd (see below), so not everybody was willing to believe this. Some suggested a dog-leg manoeuvre towards a 63.4 HEO orbit. Because of the lack of precedent, orbital altitudes could only be guessed, making a quick recovery by observers more troublesome.

It took a while (23 days) before the payload was finally observed and the orbit could be confirmed. On May 23-24, the night before I obtained the imagery above, Leo Barhorst in the Netherlands finally found the payload. And it was in a 50 degree inclination, 389 x 409 km Low Earth Orbit.

The purpose of this payload in this odd orbit is a bit of a mystery. The orbital inclination of 50.0 degrees does not match common orbital inclinations attached to specific functions: US military radar satellites (ONYX, TOPAZ) tend to be in 57 degree LEO orbits or their 123 degree retrograde equivalents; SIGINT sats in 63.4 degree orbits (either LEO or HEO); optical reconnaissance satellites in 98 degree sun-synchronous LEO orbits; the X-37B space plane was in a 39-degree inclined very Low Earth Orbit. An orbital inclination of 50.0 degrees, as shown by USA 276, is odd and unusual.

The common opinion is that USA 276 is some technology demonstrator, somewhat similar to the ill-fated USA 193 from 2006, blown from the sky with a SM-3 in 2008. But what technology does it demonstrate?

click map to enlarge

Orbital inclination and orbital altitude are in fact very (some would say oddly) similar to the ISS (see diagrams above and below, showing how close the orbits currently are): the two objects in theory (and based on the current USA 276 orbit) can potentially even make quite close approaches, to within a few km (!), as Ted Molczan showed in a private communication.

click image to enlarge

I have found that on June 4, USA 276 will in fact be very close by when (if all goes according to plan)  the SpaceX DRAGON CRS-11 should arive at the ISS at this date. That is, if USA 276 doesn't change its current orbit before then.

Observers in Europe might see the three objects close together in their evening twilight of June 3, with USA 276 some 15 degrees distant from the ISS.

The diagram below shows the position of USA 276 relative to the ISS on the European evening of June 3, if USA 276 has not manoeuvered by then:

click image to enlarge

Due to slightly different rates of precession of their orbital nodes, the orbits will slowly diverge from their current close coincidence over time, unless USA 276 makes a corrective manoeuvre.

I have pondered the question whether this all is coincidental or not. While I can in fact think of a potential goal where this all would be on purpose, that would be a very wild thing to do, so perhaps it is not so likely. For the moment, let's better chalk it up to coincidence until new developments seem to point otherwise.

Updating the changing tumble period of the USA 144 decoy

click diagram to enlarge
The diagram above shows the brightness variation of 1999-028C, the USA 144 decoy, as determined on 21 May 2017. It was created from photometry on video records spanning several minutes of a pass using a WATEC 902H with a Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens. The photometry was obtained using a not-yet-public beta-version of TANGRA.

The brightness of the object shows a slow variation between mag +7.2 and invisible. Fitting a sinusoid gives a peak-to-peak period of 43.528 seconds, +/- 0.005.

I have written on this enigmatic object before on this blog. It was launched from Vandenberg 18 years ago, on 22 May 1999, as NROL-9. This launch is widely believed to have launched the second Misty stealth satellite. Following the launch amateurs found this relatively bright object in a (currently) 2668 x 3150 km, 63.4 degree inclined MEO orbit. The object shows a periodic brightness variation.

This object is, however, not Misty 2. A long term analysis by Ted Molczan showed that the object has an unusually large surface-to-mass ratio in the order of 0.09 m2/kg and its orbit is subject to considerable Solar Radiation Pressure (SRP) effects. The surface-to-mass ratio is an order of a magnitude larger than for normal satellites, suggesting this is something large and lightweight - e.g. something inflatable, so large and light that pressure from sunlight has an effect on its orbit.

We have come to believe that it is a decoy, designed to lure attention away from the real, stealthy USA 144 payload when it was launched in 1999.

As the result of SRP influence, the tumble rate is variable over time: in the order of 60-90 seconds 7-8 years ago, 50 seconds 2 years ago (see here), and now 43.5 seconds.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

What is NROL-76 and what orbit wil it be launched into?

Tomorrow, 30 April 2017, with (from the area warnings) a three-hour launch window starting at 10:55 UT, SpaceX will launch a classified satellite for the NRO. The launch is designated NROL-76 and will happen from launchpad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The press-kit is here.

There has been some speculation on what this launch might be and what orbit it will go into.

Considering the latter, Ted Molczan discussed three options in two separate SeeSat-L posts (here and here): a launch into HEO (Molniya) orbit of a new SDS satellite; a launch into GEO of a new NEMESIS; or a launch into LEO, perhaps a new version of the ill-fated USA 193 launch from 2006.

The launch azimuth deduced from the Area Warnings that appeared after Ted posted his initial speculation on the payload, narrowed the options down to two: HEO or LEO. To me, the Area Warnings strongly suggest the second option: a launch into LEO, perhaps a USA 193 follow-up.

The Maritime Area Warnings published for the launch show two hazard zones: one near Cape Canaveral, and one, with a window opening four-and-a-half hours later than the launch window, in the Indian Ocean stretching from south of Madagascar to north of Kerguelen:

NAVAREA IV 342/17 [1 of 1][[WWNWSFOLDER]]

ALTERNATE 011055Z TO 011354Z MAY
28-39N 080-39W, 30-34N 078-45W,
31-32N 077-34W, 31-26N 077-13W,
31-06N 077-11W, 30-47N 077-32W,
30-08N 078-26W, 28-29N 080-21W,
28-26N 080-27W, 28-25N 080-35W,
28-25N 080-38W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 011454Z MAY 17.//

Authority: EASTERN RANGE 211830Z APR 17.

Date: 271553Z APR 17
Cancel: 01145400 May 17

HYDROPAC 1447/17 [1 of 1][[WWNWSFOLDER]]

DNC 02, DNC 03.
ALTERNATE 011438Z TO 011715Z MAY
30-31S 038-04E, 30-40S 040-19E,
40-11S 060-06E, 47-31S 080-01E,
48-56S 079-46E, 49-00S 075-21E,
47-12S 063-50E, 41-51S 049-33E,
35-39S 040-15E, 32-07S 037-37E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 011815Z MAY 17.//

Authority: EASTERN RANGE 211827Z APR 17.

Date: 250231Z APR 17
Cancel: 01181500 May 17

I have put them in maps for your convenience:
click map to enlarge
The first area points to a launch azimuth of 43-45 degrees, indicating (if no dog-leg is involved) launch into an orbital inclination of 50-51 degrees as can be seen in the first map I prepared, above. This would at first sight exclude launch into HEO/Molniya orbit at inclination 63.4 degrees, unless of course a dog-leg manoeuvre is involved, which is possible.
click map to enlarge

The second area, in the Indian Ocean, points to the de-orbit of the upper stage about 4.5 hours after launch and actually matches a launch into an ~51 degree inclined LEO orbit as well.

In the map below, I have printed an estimated Low Earth orbit for the upper stage of the launch, based on the 2006 USA 193 orbit in terms of apogee and perigee, but with the orbital inclination changed to 51 degrees. About 2.4 orbits after launch, near 14:38 UT when the hazard warning window opens, the stage would be over Africa on its way to the hazard area, which has a position and curvature matching the trajectory (given the uncertainties in my orbit estimate) close enough, in my opinion, to accept this potential scenario of launch into an approximately 51 degree inclined, about 355 x 375 km orbit, or something similar to that:

click map to enlarge

One has to wonder though why the de-orbit is 2.5 revolutions after launch, and not simply during the second part of the first revolution. Perhaps some experiments will be done with the stage? Or does it deliver additional (small) payloads perhaps? Your guess is as good as mine.

In terms of the payload itself, Ted Molczan has posted some interesting info to SeeSat-L suggesting the payload is based on  Boeing's commercial, completely electrical thrust BSS-702SP bus.

The purpose of the payload(s?) is completely unclear at the moment. Radar satellites such as Lacrosse/ONYX were previously launched into 57-58 degree inclined orbits or their retrograde 123 degree equivalent (FIA/TOPAZ). Optical reconnaissance satellites such as KH-11 are launched in 97 degree inclined sun-synchronous orbits. NOSS (INTRUDER) SIGINT duo's are launched into 63.4 degree inclined stable perigee orbits. If this payload ends up in a 51 degree orbit, this is new.

There is a possibility that, while initially launched and inserted into a 51 degree orbit (a launch trajectory with which SpaceX is familiar from their CRS launches to the ISS), the payload next manoeuvres into a 58 degree or even 63.4 degree orbit on its own, using its electrical thrusters.

It will be interesting to see what orbit the object or objects eventually will be found in. It is likely it will be designated "USA 276".

If the 51-degree orbital inclination scenario is correct, observers in the Northern hemisphere will, unfortunately for me, not have visual sighting opportunities after launch: optical detection will rest on the shoulders of Southern hemisphere observers.

[added note 29 apr 15:15 UT] On April 30, be aware for possible re-entry sightings from Madagascar, especially the southern part of the island, near 14:40 UT, in early twilight (assuming launch at ~11:00 UT).

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

VIDEO: the ISS Fabric Shield (again), and North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-4

Yesterday I posted April 3 photographic imagery of the ISS Fabric Shield (1998-067 LF), a 1.5 x 0.6 meter anti-micrometeoroid shield astronauts inadvertently let fly into space during an EVA on March 30 (see my previous post for more details).

Yesterday evening April 4, in late twilight, I managed to film the object, which was now 1m 45s ahead of the ISS. The video, shot with a WATEC 902H low-light-level camera and a Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens, is above.

Later in the evening I also targetted  North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-4 (KMS-4, 2016-009A) which I had filmed, but as a very faint object, a week before as well. This time, KMS-4 was much brighter due to a more favourable illumination angle, and is easy to see as it cruises past Alcor and Mizar:

Both the ISS Fabric Shield and KMS-4 do not show a clear periodic brightness variation in the video imagery. The only variation that is there are slow trends (altitude and illumination angle related) and fluctuations within the fluctuation expected from atmospheric scintillationand oscillations in the video signal (estimated by looking at variations in the apparent brightness of a comparison star) :

click diagram to enlarge

Monday, 3 April 2017

The ISS Fabric Shield accidentally released from the ISS imaged in orbit

On March 30, 2017, NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson conducted an EVA from the International Space Station to prepare a new docking port and install new equipment on the outside of the ISS.

click to enlarge

During this spacewalk, they accidentally released a 1.5 x 0.6 meter large protective Fabric Shield, a shield against micrometeoroids that was one of four to have been installed that day on one of Tranqility module's ports. Somehow it got loose  and floated away in space, before the astronauts were able to retrieve it. Oopsy!

Once floating free in space, and having become space debris, it was catalogued by JSpOC as object nr. 42434, 1998-067LF.

The image above shows the shield, imaged from Leiden last night during a zenith pass with an 1.4/85 mm lens. It is faint and was almost exactly a minute in front of the ISS. It seemed steady in brightness on the 3 images I obtained (spanning an arc of 15 seconds in time).

Here is a screencap of the moment the object floated away during the EVA, somehow having come loose of its tether:

click to enlarge

The image below shows the ISS, a minute later (bright stars are kappa and iota UMa):

The accidentally released Fabric Shield has a relatively large surface relative to its weight [added edit: it weights 8 kg and measures 1.5 x 0.6 meter], which means it will quickly decay and re-enter, probably within 5 to 6 months from now.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

NOSS 3-8 (NROL-79) components now close to operational separation

In a recent blog post I documented the intricate manoeuvering of the two NROL-79 payloads (NOSS 3-8) over the past three weeks. They were manoeuvering to circularize and synchronize their orbits and manoeuvre to a desired mutual distance.

click image to enlarge

Much of this manoeuvering is now done, and the two spacecraft are now flying in formation at a mutual distance of ~50.5 km. They now look like a typical NOSS pair, as can be seen in the image above shot in the evening of March 21 (the bright star is Procyon).

Below is an updated diagram, showing the evolution of the separation between the two spacraft over time:

click diagram to enlarge

After an initial rapid post-launch separation with a drift of ~31-32 km/day, reaching a maximum separation of ~202 km on day 6 after launch, the separation distance started to decrease post day 6, and is now, by day 20-21 after launch, clearly flattening out to a stable separation distance of about 50 km.

The Mean Motion/orbital period of the two spacecraft are now very similar too, as is their orbital inclination: all signs that they are now close to the desired configuration. The two orbital planes are currently about 0.2 degree separated in RAAN.

click diagram to enlarge
click diagram to enlarge
click diagram to enlarge

While they are now at their operational distance (which looks to be ~50 km in this case) and close to operational configuration, this does not mean that NOSS 3-8 is now fully operational. Over the coming weeks, they will probably undergo extensive check-out tests. I also expect them to continue to make small manoeuvres for a while (but while maintaining a more or less stable mutual distance at ~50 km).

Several amateur satellite trackers contributed data to this analysis, including Leo Barhorst, Cees Bassa, Russell Eberst, Alain Figer, Paul Camilleri, Dave Waterman, Alberto Rango, Brad Young and me.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

NOSS 3-8 (NROL-79): Dancing in the Dark

click image to enlarge

The image above shows the new NOSS 3-8 duo (2017-011 A & B, launched as NROL-79 on March 1, see my earlier blog post here), aka USA 274, imaged on March 12 through very thin cirrus.

Over the past 2.5 weeks a number of us (Leo Barhorst, Cees Bassa and me in the Netherlands; Russell Eberst in Scotland; Alain Figer in France; and Paul Camilleri in Australia) have been chasing this duo and monitored their manoeuvering, consisting of small adjustments in apogee and perigee and orbital period.

Click diagram to enlarge

I expect their manoeuvering to be complete by 21 days (3 weeks) after launch, i.e. near March 23. They will then have attained their finalized separation distance. I expect this initial operational distance to be about 45 km. I do not exclude further small manoeuvres after March 23 though, but these will be more as a pair, and not with respect to each other.

NROL-79 consists of a NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) duo: two payloads orbiting as a close pair (typically 30-55 km). The second object is  catalogued as "debris" by JSpOC (they did this with all second payloads of NOSS launches), but isn't: after all, real debris shouldn't manoeuvre, and shouldn't stationkeep with respect to the other payload.

click diagram to enlarge

After insertion in a 1010 x 1204 km, 63.45 degree inclined orbit, the two payloads started an intricate dance in space, step by step positioning themselves with respect to each other.

In the initial week after launch the two payloads separated at a rate of ~31-32 kilometer per day, to a maximum separation of just over 200 km on Day 7. Then their drift reversed, with the two payloads gradually moving closer again (see diagram above, which also gives similar data for a previous NOSS launch, NROL-55 (NOSS 3-7) from 2015). Extrapolating the drift, and looking at the previous NOSS launch, I expect that by the end of the 3rd week after lauch (~March 23, 2017) the two payloads will reach their intended separation of ~45 km, and stabilize with respect to each other.

It is interesting to note the difference with the previous NOSS launch, NOSS 3-7, also depicted in the diagram. The latter initially drifted further apart, and for a longer time: the separation increased until 14 days after launch (double as long as for the current case), to as much as ~570 km (almost three times as large as the current case), before the two objects started to move closer again.

In the image below, taken three days apart on March 10 and March 13, the decrease in distance over time after the first week can clearly be noted (in the images, movement is from top to bottom and the B-object is leading). The images show the payloads in roughly the same part of the sky (bright stars are 1, 10 and 13 Cyg):

click image to enlarge

A first major manoeuvre occurred on day 6, when both payloads lowered their orbital period:

click diagram to enlarge

Around that same date, the visual brightness of the two objects changed. The latter probably signifies the deployment of something on the payloads: either antennae, or perhaps panels used to make minor orbital adjustments by decreasing or increasing drag (it has long been rumoured that this is one of the ways the NOSS payloads maintain their bond).

The pattern between the current launch and the previous launch is similar (although I have a suspicion that for the previous NROL-55 launch in 2015, analysts switched the identitities of the two objects around day 6): a major orbital period adjustment on day 6, after which one of the payloads gradually increases its orbital period again while the other very slowly decreases its orbital period. But what can be seen is that for the current case, the values for both payloads stay much more similar than was the case with the previous launch, just as with the evolution of the spatial separation of the two. One of the things this could point to is that, perhaps, the initial orbit insertion of NROL-79 went better than for NROL-55, but this is speculation.

Note: orbital calculations for NROL-79 used were done by myself using observational data from the persons mentioned in the main text. The NROL-55 orbit calculations from 2015 were by Mike McCants and  Ted Molczan. I am indebted to Leo Barhorst and Bram Dorreman for their help in filling gaps in my archive of orbits for the latter object.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

USA 186 recovered

click to enlarge

The image above shows USA 186 (2005-042A), a KH-11 ADVANCED CRYSTAL ("Keyhole") optical reconnaissance satellite. It is cruising just below the Pleiades star cluster in this image, which I shot yesterday evening using the Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens and an exposure of 2 seconds.

USA 186 was recovered last week after being briefly lost in the Northern hemisphere winter blackout. Leo Barhorst made one or two possible detection in February, but it was Cees Bassa who unambiguously recovered it on March 13th. Two days later, I made the image above.

The arc is still short, but it appears to be in an approximately 265 x 435 km sun-synchronous orbit. The apogee is some 20 km lower than it previously was, the perigee is about 5 km higher (i.e., the current orbit is more circular than previous orbits). It's ground repeat interval is 4 days.

USA 186 is the secondary West plane satellite in the KH-11 constellation. The hunt is now on for USA 245, the primary West plane KH-11. Recovery of the primary East plane KH-11, USA 224, will have to wait untill early summer.

When I observed it yesterday it was bright (mag +1.5) and briefly flared to mag 0 near 19:32:50 UT (March 15, 2017).

Friday, 3 March 2017

Tracking NROL-79, a new NOSS duo

Launch of NROL-79 from Vandenberg on March 1, 17:49 UT (photo ULA)

On March 1, 2017, at 17:50 UT,  an Atlas V rocket was launched from Vandenberg with a classified (double) payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) onboard. It was the 70th Atlas V mission, and the 14th NRO launch using this launch vehicle.

The two payloads were launched towards a southern direction into a 63.46 degree inclined, 1010 x 1204 km orbit. The payloads are almost certainly a new set of NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) satellites, NOSS 3-8 (NOSS satellites are also known under the code name INTRUDER). These are SIGINT/ELINT satellites operating in close, formation flying pairs. The purpose of these satellites is to geolocate radio signals, notably signals originating from ships. In order to keep their mutual distance  stable, they operate in 63.4 degree orbits, a critical inclination which keeps perigee in a stable position.

This is the 8th launch in the third generation of these spacecraft.

Based on estimated search elements, both payloads were quickly picked up by amateur trackers. Russell Eberst in Scotland and Alain Figer in France first spotted them about 10 hours after the launch, on March 2.  Paul Camilleri in Australia soon followed. I was clouded out that night, but the next night (March 3) was clear in Leiden, and I managed to image the payloads on two consecutive passes, albeit under a somewhat hazy sky. It was also imaged by Leo Barhorst that same night.

Below are two of my images of the two payloads chasing each other, from consecutive passes, obtained from Leiden under a hazy sky (click them to enlarge):

NROL-79 payloads, image 3 March 2017, 1:43 UT (click to enlarge)

In the image above taken during the first pass near 1:43 UT, the objects are moving from top to bottom through a field in Cygnus. In the image below, from the second pass, they are moving from left to right. Note the difference in brightness between the two objects, noticable during this second pass:

NROL-79 payloads, image 3 March 2017, 3:31 UT (click to enlarge)

The NOSS components are usually designated A and B (sometimes A & C). For the moment, we have named the fainter leading object B. The objects are currently still quite faint, indicating that they have not yet deployed their solar arrays and other gear.

The B object is usually catalogued as "debris" by JSpOC, but this is a ruse: in reality it is a functional payload (as it manoeuvres and carefully stationkeeps with the A component during its operational years).

Our current tracking data established that they are in a 63.46 degree inclined, 1010 x 1204 km orbit. The two payloads are about 45 km apart in space.

Over the coming days, they will likely make manoeuvres to finalize their orbits and respective positions.

The respective distances of current still operational NOSS pairs (NOSS 3-3 to 3-7) varies between 39.5 and 55 km.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

OT: the slow, 13.8 second duration earthgrazing fireball over the Netherlands of 28 Nov 2016, 04:40 UT

the long duration (13.8 s) fireball of 28 Nov 2016, 4:40 UT 
image (c) Jos Nijland, Benningbroek, NL - click to enlarge

In the early morning of 28 November 2016, near 04:40 UT (05:40 am local time), a bright, slow fireball with an extremely long duration occurred over the Netherlands.

The image above was captured by the all sky meteor camera of Jos Nijland in Benningbroek and shows how the fireball trajectory spanned much of the sky. This camera was  equipped with a rotating shutter, and the number of breaks visible in the trail amount to at least 13.8 seconds visibility. That is very long for a fireball.

With such slow, long duration fireballs, one of the first questions asked usually is: is it a meteor, or is it the re-entry of artificial space debris? In this case, the analytical results clearly show it was not an artificial object, but a meteoric fireball of asteroidal origin - i.e. a small chunk of asteroid entering the atmosphere.

A total of 7 all sky photographic cameras captured the fireball: apart from Benningbroek (Jos Nijland) shown above,  it was also captured by stations Ermelo (Koen Miskotte), Oostkapelle (Klaas Jobse), Utrecht (Felix Bettonvil), Bussloo (Jaap van 't Leven), Borne (Peter van Leuteren) and Twisk (Marco Verstraaten). Benningbroek also captured the last few seconds of the fireball on video with a CAMS camera. Koen Miskotte in Ermelo in the center of the Netherlands also observed the fireball visually, estimating it magnitude -5. He reported fragmentation.

Click to enlarge

The photographs allow to reconstruct the atmospheric trajectory, speed, radiant point and heliocentric orbit of this fireball, and whether something survived at the end or not.

The fireball appeared between 04:40:26 and 04:40:40 UT. It entered the atmosphere on a grazing shallow angle of only 11.2 degrees. The trajectory was over 180 km long - the average trajectory for all stations combined is 183 km long, but some stations captured an even longer part, with Benningbroek topping all with 212 km trajectory length! The fireball started over the North Sea at an altitude of 77 km near 53.0 N, 3.1 E (average of all stations), and moved on an almost due West-East trajectory, over the tip of North Holland province and Lake IJssel, ending at 42 km altitude over the northern part of the Noordoost Polder near 52.8 N, 5.7 E.

Four of the 7 stations were equipped with a rotating shutter in front of the lens, allowing speed reconstructions. Combined with the radiant point determination, this yields the orbit in the solar system.

The fireball entered the atmosphere with an initial atmospheric speed of 15.45 km/s. At the end of the trajectory, at 42.3 km altitude, it had slowed down to a terminal speed of 9.3 km/s. At that point, nothing was left of the original meteoroid: no meteorites reached the ground, it had completely ablated away. The deceleration curve obtained is actually quite nice:

Click diagram to enlarge

The apparent radiant of the fireball was low in the western sky, at RA 53.2 degrees, DEC +13.0 degrees in Taurus. The geocentric radiant (the radiant point corrected for amongst others gravitational influence) was at RA 43.8 degrees, DEC +0.4 degrees. The geocentric speed was 11.1 km/s.

Click star map to enlarge

The resulting heliocentric orbit is that of an Apollo asteroid, with perihelion at 0.874 AU, aphelion squarely in the asteroid belt at 2.76 AU, an orbital eccentricity of 0.518 and an orbital inclination of  4.9 degrees.

Click to enlarge


Friday, 2 December 2016

SIGINT Galore!

USA 136 (Trumpet 3), a TRUMPET in HEO. 28 Nov 2016
click to enlarge

The evening of 28 November was very clear - no moon and an extremely transparent sky, with temperatures around zero.

I used it to target several objects in GEO and HEO. Due to the favourable sky I could use exposure times twice as long as usual.

All the classified objects imaged were Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) satellites, i.e. eavesdropping satellites. The image above shows you one of the TRUMPET satellites, USA 136 (1997-068A), crossing through Andromeda. This is an object in a 63 degree inclined HEO orbit. The satellite was coming down from apogee at that moment and at an altitude of ~31 500 km.

Below is another object in HEO, USA 184 (2006-027A). This too is a SIGINT satellite, part of the TRUMPET-Follow On program (aka Advanced TRUMPET. It also serves as a SBIRS platform.

USA 184, a TRUMPET-FO in HEO, 28 Nov 2016
click to enlarge

This object was near apogee at this moment, at an altitude of 39 000 km over the Faroër Islands, which is why it looks stellar in this 20-second exposure. The star field is in Cassiopeia.

Both these objects hadn't been observed by our network for a while, hence they were somewhat off their predictions (1.5 degrees in position in the case of USA 136; and 1 degree off position in the case of USA 184).

I also briefly imaged a part of the geosynchronous belt, much lower in the sky. The targetted GEO objects were SIGINT satellites too: both Mercury 1 and Mercury 2 (1994-054A and 1996-026A), The Advanced ORION satellites Mentor 4 and Mentor 6 (2009-001A and 2012-034A) and the NEMESIS satellite PAN (2009-047A).

PAN and Mentor 4 (both shown below) have a story attached to them and were the subject of my recent article in The Space Review, which you can read here.

PAN (USA 207), a NEMESIS in GEO, 28 Nov 2016
click to enlarge

Mentor 4 (USA 202), an Advanced ORION in GEO, 28 Nov 2016
click to enlarge

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Reshaping this blog

Yes, this is still the same blog, but it looks slightly different.

The design of this blog was over 11 years old. Even though the focus of this blog has always been more on content than on following the latest webdesign fads, it was about time for a cautious do-over.

I chose for a simple design. I still have to tweak a few things, so over the coming days you might see some more changes to the lay-out appear.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Chinese CZ-11 rocket stage impacts Myanmar Jade quarry (updated)

On November 9 at 23:42 UT (November 10 in local time), China launched a Long March 11 (CZ-11) rocket from Jiuquan on a south-bound trajectory, lofting the XPNAV satellite into orbit.

The object (image from the Myanmar Times)

Shortly after this, an object came crashing out of the sky in Myanmar, impacting in a Jade quarry near Hmaw His Zar village near Hpakant in Kachin Province. Photographs of the object can be seen in the news stories here and  here. The image in the first link is the best in terms of showing shape and size.

The object is reportedly ~4 meter long and ~1.5 meter wide (reports differ slightly). In one of the images, it is clear that it is different in diameter at both ends, the shape being that of a barrel with a tapering segment on it.

Size and shape conforms to (what I assume is) the second stage of the CZ-11 (edit: might in fact be the 3rd stage), which is about ~4 meters long and about 2 meter diameter at one side, tapering to about 1.4 meter diameter at the other side. A drawing of the rocket's elements is here and another, perhaps more accurate rendering is here (the drawings differ somewhat, hence my confusion on whether this is the 2nd or 3rd stage. From the second rendering, it looks to be the 3rd rather than the 2nd stage).

Click map to enlarge

As can be seen in the map above, last Wednesday's Chinese launch trajectory lines up well with the reported location of the impact in Myanmar.  So it almost certainly is the 2nd (3rd?) stage of the CZ-11 rocket used for this launch.

[edit 12 Nov 2016: to be clear, the line on the map is a projection of the orbital plane of the XPNAV satellite at the moment of launch, as a proxy for the launch trajectory. You can see it lines up with both the Jiuquan launch location and the location where the object came down in Myanmar].

UPDATE: Jeffrey Lewis ("The Arms Control Wonk") pointed me to this Chinese CNTV footage about the recent launch that shows various parts of the CZ-11 rocket. From 0:35 onwards, one of the stages shown visually clearly is a match for the Myanmar objects:

Here are a few stills from the footage, compared to one of the images of the Myanmar object. The red semi-transparent boxes indicate which stage matches in terms of shape and details such as the round hole halfway the hull:

click to enlarge
(editted 12 Nov: added images and text, noted the 2nd/3rd stage potential confusion)

Saturday, 23 July 2016

The fabrications of Masami Kuramoto (again on MH17 and the suspect Russian MoD pictures)

In January, I posted an analysis of images provided by the Russian MoD during a press conference in July 2014, a few days after the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine. These images purport to show Ukrainian BUK installations in a field near Zaroshchens’ke.

In my investigation of these images, I showed that the images are suspect because the satellite-to-ground geometry of the satellite and target area on the moment the images were purportedly taken, do not appear to match.

In short: the satellite could only image these targets with clearly obligue angles with the horizontal at the target location, angles between 45 and 57.5 degrees. The Russian imagery however, appears to show these purported "BUK's" as if taken from a much higher angle,almost from straight above. There also appear to be inconsistencies in the shadow directions.

I noted this in the context of checking which satelite made the purported imagery (the only candidate is the Resurs P-1 satellite). For more details, read my earlier post with the original analysis.

The authenticity of these same Russian satellite images had already come under fire from the side of the Bellingcat collective earlier, based on an analysis with the photoforensic tool FotoForensics. More recently (15 July 2016) the authenticity of the images in question again came under fire, this time by the people from the Arms Control Wonk blog, using another photoforensic package, Tungstène.

Both of these photoforensic analysis are not without criticasters (most notably Neal Krawetz, the author of the FotoForensics photoforensic tools). There are however other reasons as well to be cautious with respect to this Russian imagery.

My own analysis, approached the issue from (pun intended) another angle, and came (predictably) under fire from a number of Twitter trolls, the most persistent of which was and is an anonymous  Twitter known under the nickname 'Masami Kuramoto' (they always are anonymous, and that itself tells you something). I earlier replied to his criticism in a blog post in February.

'Masami Kuramoto' initially seemed to have given up after my rebuttal, but more recently has stepped up his antics again. He has posted an analysis on his brand new blog, called "Facts versus Truthers", in which he purports to show that my model is incorrect, claiming that I published a model that was "misaligned and pointing downhill". He also tried to smear me by suggesting I am a "truther" (really a very odd insult given the positions I take).

The truth is that Masami Kuramoto's own points of view have very little to do with "facts". As I was tired of arguing with trolls I have ignored him for a while (I have better, more useful things to do), but as the antics are stepped up in the debates in the aftermath of the appearance of the Arms Control Wonk study, and Masami publicly purports he has rebutted me and proven my reconstruction "false", I will briefly discuss Masami Kuramoto's fabrications and show the malicious manipulative perversity of it all.

It is as simple as comparing my original image (left) with the reproduction by Masami Kuramoto (right):

click to enlarge

It is immediately clear that he superimposed his block model on a severely distorted version of my reconstruction.

In fact, when we project Masami Kuramoto's block model (red) over my undistorted model, with both being rotated so that the Y-axis is north-south in order to match the North-South oriented Russian satellite image and the north-south alignments of the purported BUK on that image, we get the image below.

click to enlarge

As you can see, the two models actually match very well. There is no significant difference between my model and Masami Kuramoto's model, contra Masami Kuramoto's insistence. In fact, it only appeared that way because Masami Kuaramoto provided a distorted version of my model and compared his model to that, rather than my original.

Hence why I use the word "fabrication" to refer to Masami Kuramoto's attempt to rebut me. Masami Kuramoto's argument that my model is "misaligned and pointing downhill" is simply not true, the argument is fabricated.

Looking at the reconstructions above, it is also very clear that the BUKs in the Russian MoD image do not match both Masami's own model and my model in terms of what is visible of the west sides of the launch vehicles (the slanted look of the models due to the oblique viewing angle).

This of course was the original point of my analysis: the two BUK's seem to be shown too much from directly above these machines, whereas the image should show a clearly oblique angle (as the model reconstructions show)

I want to emphatically point out, that no amount of orthorectifications applied to the Russian image can make the exposed west sides that should have been imaged (but are not), somehow automagically disappear. Nor will it result in incompatible shadow directions.

So, I think my point is clear. And it is also clear that Masami Kuramoto is a malicious, insincere troll of the kind that is abundant in the MH17 debate.

I know enough of troll behaviour by now to have no illusion that this will stop Masami Kuramoto's attempts to discredit my findings by provided fabricated counter-arguments. He will try again, and in that sense, this will be a perpetual discussion. Remember however, the history of this discussion so far, in judging the veracity of any new bollocks he might come up with.

It is interesting to look at how this whole argument developed, as it contains several clues on how to identify a troll. Masami Kuramoto tried from the start to tear my analysis apart by any handle he could perceive. When several of these attempts failed, he went on to the next one, and then yet another one. This is the hallmark of someone with a strong bias, a bias with an origin in ideology. In brief order (see also the summary and discussion in my earlier post):

1) He tried to argue that the orbital elements for the satellite in question I used were incorrect, and hence my geometry reconstruction was incorrect. He argued that the US MoD had post-altered the orbital elements for this satellite, but was taken aback when I informed him that I (and several other satellite trackers) maintain a private archive of elements. I regularly save copies of the latest orbital elements released by JSpOC to a hard drive and have an archive of these going back many years, and that analysis of that archive showed no sign of post-MH17 fiddling with the orbital elements;

2) Then he tried to use a part of the Space-Track User Agreement, taken completely out of context, to (falsely) imply that the elements would not be accurate enough (the matter of fact is that the accuracy of JSpOC elements for the question at hand is not in dispute, see my earlier post);

3) He then tried that argument again by referring to a publication, without (wanting to) realize the inaccuracies pointed out in that paper were very small scale and completely neglicable for the discussion at hand;

4) He then came with the fabricated counter-evidence currently under discussion in this blog post.

In all cases, he insisted on maintaining his position even after being corrected on the matter. It was (and is) very clear he is desperately looking for handles to tackle my analysis because he wants to prove it wrong. Masami Kuramoto is pro-Russian and promotes a worldview where Russia is never wrong, so I must be. As we have seen, he is willing to fabricate arguments to sustain his point. All this, from the comfort of his anonimity.

There are a lot of people out there like Masami Kuramoto (and, to be clear, not just pro-Russian ones). They are annoying, and poisoning the debate. Around last week's 2-year anniversary of the MH17 tragedy, we have seen a lot of it again, both anonymous and not so anonymous, coming out of the woodwork. Most of these people are "useful idiots" blinded by ideology. Some are more sinister, as they deliberately fabricate disinformation on behalf of an involved party.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 chasing the ISS in the sky

ISS and Dragon CRS-9. Click to enlarge

Last night was a clear and very warm, moonlit night (21 deg C). It was warm enough to observe in shirt and shorts. I observed MUOS 5 and USA 224, but the highlight of the night came in early morning twilight: a splendid pass of the ISS being chased by SpaceX's Dragon CRS-9 cargo vehicle launched July 18 and berthing to the ISS at the moment of writing.

The image above shows them, crossing Aquila at 1:32:42 UT (3:32 local time): ISS is the brighter object in top, the Dragon is chasing it, some 20-25 seconds behind it.

It was a splendid view, seeing the two objects majestically sailing across te sky. The Dragon was very bright an easy to see: mag +2 when clearing the rooftop in the southwest, and briefly attaining magnitude 0 while decsending in the southeast.

The image was made with my Canon EOS 60D and an EF 2.0/35mm lens set at F2.2, 5 seconds exposure at 800 ISO. This was 9.5 hours before the Dragon was captured by the ISS's robotic arm for berthing.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Reentry of Soyuz rocket upper stage from Progress MS-03 launch seen from New Zealand, 19 Jul 2016

On July 19, 2016, near ~6:30 UT (~18:30 local time), a bright very slow and long-lasting fireball was reported by many people from New Zealand's South Island. Several images are available, e.g. here and here and here. The fine video below is from YouTube user Ralph Pfister:

Perhaps the most accurate time given for the event is 6:26 UT as given by amateur astronomer Paul Stewart from Timaru on New Zealand's South Island. Stewart captured  the fireball on several all-sky images. A fine animation of his images is on his weblog.

From the video's it is immediately clear that this is not a meteoric fireball, but the re-entry of an artificial object (i.e. artificial Space Junk).

Time, direction of movement  and geographical position moreover match well with an obvious decay candidate: the Russian Soyuz upper stage (2016-045B, NORAD #41671) from the July 16 launch of Progress MS-03 to the International Space Station. In other words: this was a Space Junk re-entry.

At the moment of writing, the elements that are available for the Soyuz rocket stage are almost a day old and not unproblematic. For unknown reasons the B* drag value of the elsets is zero and the NDOT/2 value unrealistic.

This hampers analysis slightly, but using the almost a day old elements face-value, the upper stage would have passed over New Zealand's Southern Island near ~6:33 UT (~18:33 local time). This is within minutes of the time of the New Zealand event. The direction of movement of the rocket stage also matches that in Paul Stewart's imagery.

The maps below show the predicted position and track of the Soyuz upper stage for 19 July 2016, 16:30 UT (18:30 local time in New Zealand). They are based on the almost a day old element set  16200.42841345.

click map to enlarge

click map to enlarge

The few minutes discrepancy between predictions and actual sighting from New Zealand is not unusual for a re-entering object. The last available elements (at the moment of writing) for the Soyuz stage are actually from many hours before the reentry, and during the last moments of its life the orbital altitude drops quickly (i.e. the orbit alters).

Old elements hence will place it in a too high orbit compared to the reality of that moment. As it drops lower in orbital altitude, the rocket stage will get a shorter orbital period and hence appear somewhat earlier,  "in front" of predictions made using the old element set. Discrepancies of a few minutes are therefore normal in cases like these.

When it is "early" on the ephemerids, the orbital plane will be slightly more to the east as seen from a locality. In this case, the nominal pass predicted for Paul Stewart's locality would have been a zenith pass: but the a few minutes earlier pass time compared to the predicted time and the lower actual orbital altitude at the time of the re-entry would result in a sky track that is shifted eastwards and lower in the sky. This matches Paul Stewart's all-sky imagery.

Friday, 8 July 2016

MUOS 5 stuck in GTO

The website has broken the news that something has gone wrong with the orbit raising manoeuvres of MUOS 5. They have therefore been halted for the moment. A formal statement by the US Navy on this all is here.

So MUOS 5 at this moment appears to be stuck in the aproximately 15240 x 35700 km Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) in which Paul Camilleri and me observed it between July 3 and 5 (see my previous post).

It is the white orbit in the plots below (replaced with new versions July 9):

Orbit in TLE form:

MUOS 5                                               15242 x 35703 km
1 41622U 16041A   16186.93646397 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    08
2 41622   9.8319 324.4682 3211964 178.4686 182.8307  1.52727671    09

rms   0.003   from 14 observations Jul 3.46 - Jul 5.57 (arc 2.1 days)