Thursday, 11 January 2018

[Updated] A potential use for satellites in Zuma-like 50-degree inclined orbits

SpaceX's launch of the Zuma satellite on 8 January was interesting, and not just because of the ongoing saga of whether it failed or not (see a previous post).  

The odd 50-degree orbital inclination is another element that made this launch interesting (see discussion in my pre-launch post here: sightings of the Falcon 9 Upper Stage over Sudan after launch later confirmed this orbital inclination).

New ideas started to form post-launch after the Falcon 9 sightings from Sudan made me realize that while it indeed was launched into a 50-degree inclined orbit, the orbital altitude (900-1000 km apogee) was higher than I initially expected, making a proposed link to USA 276 unlikely.

And then @Cosmic_Penguin posted this small message thread on Twitter, referencing this interesting publication. That struck a chord and reinforced an emerging idea about a potential role for satellites in such 50-degree inclined, ~1000 km altitude orbits.

As @Cosmic_Penguin notes, the publication specifically discusses ~50-60 degree inclined, ~1000 km altitude orbits. And it is all about Space-based Radar.

I had just been looking into the coverage of the Zuma orbit, and it lines up with content in that report.

The map below is a ground coverage map of Zuma, would it have been alive and well. One of the uses of a ~50 degree inclined ~1000 km altitude Space Based Radar satellite mentioned in the report, is for shipping surveillance.

Indeed, a satellite in a Zuma-like orbit would basically cover all Ocean surfaces, except for the high Arctic and Antarctic, which are not that interesting for the purpose discussed below (moreover, the Arctic is extensively covered by groundbased and airborne radar).

click map to enlarge

A (Radar) satellite in this kind of orbit therefore would be very useful to keep track of illicit shipping movements on the High Seas.

Think stuff like embargo-runners, e.g. embargo-breaking shipments of coal and oil to for example North Korea, illegal weapons exports from North Korea, oil exports from Syria, illicit weapons transports to the Middle East, and human trafficking as well as drugs shipments.

Ships engaged in such illegal activities sometimes turn off their transponder, making it harder to track their whereabouts once out of sight of landbased shipping radar (see also the story about one particular embargo-breaking ship here). The classified US NOSS duo ELINT satellites and similar Chinese Yaogan triplets are meant to track ships from passive radiosignal crosslocation, but when a ship displays strict radio silence, these systems will not detect them either. But Space-Based Radar will.

Embargoes have become an important geopolitical tool when outright war is deemed not an alternative. We currently see embargoes enforced with regard to for example Syria and North Korea. Means to enforce embargoes including detecting and stopping potential embargo violations therefore have become important. Human trafficking and drugs trafficking are growing geopolitical problems as well.

So was Zuma meant to be an (experimental, i.e. a technology demonstrator) version of such a Space Based Radar for Ocean shipping surveillance? It is an option.

What might argue against it is the extreme secrecy surrounding the launch. Very few details were made public about the Zuma payload, the Agency operating it was not disclosed, and the launch was announced very late.

For all of this, explanations can be sought, but that admittedly all is "special pleading". For example, maybe the secrecy is there because the mission involves cutting edge experimental Radar technology. Or the secrecy could simply be the result of the "secrecy cult" in some parts of the US Government going over the top. Or it could point to operation by an Agency that wants to keep this operation on the down low - e.g. the CIA. And I can think of a few more - much more outlandish, which is why I won't mention them here - potential reasons.

We have seen this kind of secrecy before with PAN (and its later sister ship CLIO), with Prowler, and more recently with USA 276. All of these were experimental satellites doing unusual things: PAN roved between, snug up to and eavesdropped on commercial geostationary satellite telephony satellites. Prowler was an experiment for covertly inspecting other geostationary satellites on-orbit. And USA 276 remains mysterious but a series of very close encounters to the International Space Station suggest it might be a technology demonstrator for observing rendez-vous manoeuvres in space.

Zuma (the more so now it might have failed) also strongly brings the infamous USA 193 satellite to mind, although there we do know that it was a satellite for the NRO, and likely an experimental radar satellite [edit: see added note 2 below].

Nevermind what Zuma really was meant to be, and who was to operate it: the message to take home is that High Seas shipping surveillance is a potential and viable role to keep in mind for any future satellite launched in a ~1000 km altitude, ~50 degree inclined orbit.

Added note 1: Cosmic Penguin pointed out to me that this was also earlier brought up in a forum post by Ed Kyle.

Added note 2, 12 January 2018:  This article suggests Zuma might be an electro-optical/SAR hybrid and a follow-on to the infamous USA 193:

"Second, the Northrop Grumman satellite may be a follow-on to another failed satellite US 193. [...] ...., a source with direct knowledge of the program told me it was a blend of radar and electro-optical and would not provide any more detail than that. A source with wide knowledge of classified space programs has told me that the Northrop Grumman-built Zuma may be the next iteration of this. Both were apparently experimental satellites, in that they were not part of a large constellation of similar satellites."

Such a spacecraft would be well suited for the purpose indicated in this blog post.

Also, Northrop-Grumman, the company that built Zuma, has actually worked on developing ideas for Space Based GMTI Radar, which again would suit well to the purpose I suggest in this blog post.

Acknowledgement: Hat Tip to @Cosmic_Penguin on Twitter for putting ideas into my brain.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

What is NROL-47 and in what orbit will it be launched? [updated twice]

UPDATE 10 Jan 17:25 UT: The launch has been scrubbed due to high altitude winds, and moved one day to Jan 11. New start of launch window is given as 1 pm PST = 20:00 21:00 UT. This means the launch window is shifting, indicating a prefered orbital plane and launch probably right at the start of the launch window.

Update 12 Jan: The launch was again scrubbed yesterday, and is now slated for January 12, 21:00 UT . My remark about a  shifting launch window above was in error, I missed that the Maritime Broadcast Warning window opens somewhat before the actual launch window opens.

Final Update , 12 Jan: NROL-47 successfully lifted off from Vandenberg SLC-6  at 22:11 UT!

Final Update 14 Jan 2018: Amateur observers using radio have located NROL-47 in orbit. It is transmitting in the TOPAZ frequency, 2241.52 MHz. The orbit is still very preliminary but appears to point to ~1100 km orbital altitude and an orbital inclination of ~105-106 degrees. This would identify NROL-47 as a new TOPAZ, but in an orbital plane that differs from the previous four TOPAZ satellites. Due to bad weather at the observing sites of several of our active observers (I was clouded out yesterday evening myself for example), optical observations have not yet been reported.

Hot after the excitement and drama of the Zuma launch (see my previous post), a new classified launch is upcoming on Wednesday January 10, when ULA will launch NROL-47, a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), on a Delta IV from Vandenberg SLC-6 in California.

From Maritime Broadcast Warnings, the launch window opens at 20:30 UT and closes at 01:26 UT. [edit 1] After a one-day delay due to weather conditions, the launch is now slated to be on the 11th of January with the launch window opening 21:00 UT. The shifting launch window time indicates a launch into a preferred orbital plane, and it is likely that launch will be right at the opening of the launch window. [end of edit 1] [edit 2] This launch was scrubbed as well, and launch is now slated for 12 January 21:00 UT [end of edit 2]

The launch is in Westward direction, into retrograde orbit. This has led some space news websites to assume that the NROL-47 payload is the 5th TOPAZ (FIA Radar) satellite.

But is it? I have some doubts.

If it is TOPAZ 5, then it is clearly a deviation from the previous four launches. The launch hazard zones from published Maritime Broadcast Warnings show that the launch azimuth is different - previous TOPAZ missions all launched into azimuth 220 degrees, but NROL-47 launches into azimuth 200 degrees, a 20 degree difference.

NROL-47 Launch hazard areas (red) compared to the areas of four TOPAZ (FIA Radar) launches
click map to enlarge

This can be clearly seen on the map above, where the NROL-47 hazard zones are in red, and the hazard zones from the four TOPAZ in purple, green, light blue and dark blue. The azimuth and locations of the zones from the four TOPAZ launches are all quite similar, but those of NROL-47 stand out as different.

All the four TOPAZ satellites are in a 123.0 degree inclined retrograde orbit. The NROL-47 launch azimuth results in a retrograde orbit too, but with an orbital inclination of 108.6 degrees, not 123.0 degrees: a 14.4 degree difference.

The orbital altitude aimed for appears to be different too. The four TOPAZ satellites are in 1100 x 1110 km orbits. But the location of the Delta IV Upper Stage de-orbit zone (between South Africa and Antarctica), its shape and the opening time of the window (23:23 UT) points to the NROL-47 payload going into a 1500 km altitude orbit instead.[edit: from the first post-launch radio observations (see update in top of this post), the payload actually appears to be in a ~1100 km orbit, similar to previous TOPAZ: but indeed in a different orbital plane than the previous TOPAZ - end of edit]

estimated trajectory of NROL-47
click map to enlarge
So if this is the 5th TOPAZ launching as NROL-47 on Wednesday, then it is going into a quite different orbit compared to the previous four TOPAZ: different in orbital inclination as well as in orbital altitude.

In theory, the Delta IV rocket could do a "dogleg" and (when launching at 20:30 UT) deliver the NROL-47 payload into the 123.0 degree inclined orbit close to the orbital plane of TOPAZ 1 (FIA Radar 1). A second manoeuvre near the south polar pass could then align the RAAN and bring it exactly into the orbital plane of TOPAZ 1.

But why do that, if previous TOPAZ launches simply launched directly into the 123.0 degree inclination orbit?

So in my view, the jury is still out regarding the identity of NROL-47. It could be a 5th TOPAZ but in a quite different orbit compared to the previous four (in itself possible: the Lacrosses also occupied two different orbital inclinations). It could also be something new. If something new, it likely will be a radar satellite (like TOPAZ), given the retrograde character of the orbit. [edit - from radio observations, it appears to be a TOPAZ, but in a different orbital p;lane than the earlier TOPAZ -end of edit]

orbital constellation of TOPAZ 1, 2, 3 and 4 in 123.0 degree inclined orbits
The orbits are spaced 90 degrees in RAAN
click image to enlarge

The deliberate re-entry of the Upper Stage happens 1.5 revolutions (2h 55m) after launch.

Estimated search orbits, based on a 108.6 degree orbital inclination, are here. New elset estimates for the new launch date and time are here. South Africa will have two visible passes after launch.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Fuel dump of Zuma's Falcon 9 Upper Stage observed by a Dutch pilot over east Africa (and rumours that Zuma failed)

image (c) Peter Horstink, used with permission
click image to enlarge

The spectacular image above was taken by Peter Horstink, the Dutch pilot of a Boeing 747-400 freighter aircraft (Martinair Holland flight MPH8371 from Amsterdam to Johannesburg), around 3:15-3:20 UT on January 8. The aircraft was flying at 35000 feet just north of Khartoum, Sudan, at that moment, which can be seen in the foreground (the yellow lights). The image above is the first one out of four images taken by Horstink.

The spectacular green-blue "spiral" on the image is, given time and location and character, almost certainly the Falcon 9 Upper Stage from the launch of the classified Zuma satellite that day (see my earlier post here), depressurizing and venting fuel at the end of its de-orbit burn. Some 15-25 minutes later, it would re-enter in its designated re-entry zone in the southern Indian Ocean (see map below).

Horstink described his observation as follows (translated from his Dutch e-mail report):

"It started with a greenish light in the top of my front window. At first I thought it was a reflection from some lightsource behind me, but it turned out not to be. At about 218 UTC [this later turned out to be a mistake and must read 3:18 UTC: the aircraft passed Khartoum near 3:25 UTC - ML] with a  very clear sky and with Khartoum in our sight, a point of light (like a star but somewhat bigger) moved from above us to South of us. It moved slower than a usual satellite but clearly did move. I estimate we saw it for 2-3 minutes. The waning moon crescent at that time was almost right above us. The object was surrounded by a greenish glow in the shape of spiral arms, like a spiral galaxy. Two of them, which didn't seem to move much. The total  size of the phenomena was about three times the diameter of the moon."
(note that when measured from the photographs using the star background as a reference, the actual diameter of the spiral cloud is about 11 degrees. The cloud is at ~8 degrees elevation over the horizon, near azimuth 155 degrees. The two bright stars to the right of the cloud are alpha and beta Centauri ).

The map below gives my estimated trajectory for the Falcon 9 Upper Stage, with apogee at ~900 km. It fits the area of the sighting, the launch hazard zone direction and the de-orbit zone position (from Maritime Broadcast Warnings) in the Indian Ocean. The Falcon 9 Upper Stage should have re-entered into the atmosphere between 3:30-3:45 UT, about 30 minutes after the  window from the Maritime Broadcast Warning opened at 3:00 UT.

click map to enlarge

The sighting points to a somewhat higher orbital altitude for Zuma than I had anticipated before the launch: with hindsight, I had too much of an idΓ©e-fixe that the orbital altitude would be similar to that of USA 276. The Falcon 9 sighting over East Africa suggests an altitude over double as high, in the order of 900-1000 km rather than my original 400 km estimate.

The sighting does confirm the 50-degree orbital inclination of the orbit. A new estimated elset based on this revision of the orbital altitude is here.

The map below shows the (very) approximate position of the aircraft at the time of Peter Horstink's observation relative to the Falcon 9 trajectory (times in UT, January 8th 2018). The aircraft was flying on a heading of 170 degrees, and Horstink gives his position as "between waypoint Alpox and Khartoum VOR" which corresponds to about 16.38 N, 32.35 E. The Falcon 9 Upper Stage was coming down at an altitude in the range of 200-400 km at that time. Approximate positions for the Falcon 9 Upper Stage are indicated in 2-minute intervals:

click map to enlarge

Horstink made the image above and below plus a few more with a handheld camera, from the cockpit of the aircraft.

image (c) Peter Horstink, used with permission
click image to enlarge
Horstink's observation is not the only observation. Very similar photographs showing a spiral in the sky have been coming from the ground in Sudan, e.g. in this tweet:

image from the ground, from Sudan (author unknown)

On rumours that Zuma failed

The sightings from Sudan near 3:15-3:20 UT are significant, as in the late afternoon of the 8th, rumours appeared on Twitter of a Zuma launch failure. These rumours then were picked up by some news outlets, e.g. here and here.

I have no idea about the veracity of these rumours, and so far SpaceX has said the mission was "nominal" (indicating no problems with the Falcon 9), while Northrop-Grumman and the US military haven't given comments (they never do about classified mission status). They could very well just be rumours, perhaps born out of a misunderstanding of events in the launch seen from the ground by lay observers.

For the moment, unless the US Government comes with some statement, I think it is wise we should treat it as "just rumours", and not necessarily true.

The sighting of the Falcon 9 Upper stage venting 2 hours 15 minutes (1.5 orbit) after launch, bear significantly on the discussion, as it seems to confirm the remarks by SpaceX that the mission was nominal. Of course, for SpaceX the mission ends at orbit insertion.

At any rate, it shows that at least the Upper stage achieved orbit (so it was definitely not a launch failure where the rocket failed to achieve orbit), and it makes sense that the payload then did as well.

So if something went wrong, if at all (a big "if" - I am skeptical), then there are three options left:

(1)  Zuma was inserted into orbit, but it is in the wrong orbit (too high, too low); 

(2)  Zuma was inserted into orbit, but is "dead", i.e. non-responsive;

(3)  Zuma achieved orbit with the Upper Stage, but failed to detach from the Upper Stage, and next de-orbitted with the Upper Stage near 3:30-3:45 UT.

JSpOC ("NORAD") did enter an object from this launch into its master catalogue on January 9th, as object nr. 43098, COSPAR 2018-001A, name USA 280. They designated it "PAYLOAD" (and the USA 280 designation would point to this as well). As usual for classified missions, they do not give details on the orbit.

screenshot showing the JSpOC master catalogue entry for a "PAYLOAD" named USA 280 associated with the launch

This suggests something achieved orbit long enough (i.e. over more than one orbit) to be detected and added to the catalogue.

While this does not necessarily mean the object is still in orbit (and it could in theory reference the Falcon 9 Upper Stage, with the "PAYLOAD" designation then in error), it does fuel my skepticism towards the truth of the rumours.

If Zuma is on-orbit but did fail, the situation becomes reminiscent of the USA 193 saga - an experimental satellite launched in December 2006 that failed after orbit insertion, and a year later was shot out of the sky with an SM3 missile, which has become infamous as "Operation Burnt Frost".

With regard to the observed fuel dump/depressurization: this is normal for most launches and does not necessarily indicate something's wrong.

Rocket stages always carry excess fuel, as you don't want the engine to cut out prematurely by running out of fuel. So it always has a sufficient fuel margin. Once its work is done, this excess fuel is often vented, also known as "depressurization".

[update] An earlier example of such a spiral resulting from a Falcon 9 venting fuel after launch into LEO, is this one from a SpaceX Falcon 9 test launch of a DRAGON in 2010. So this event over Sudan is not unusual. [end of update]

Depressurization and fuel venting avoids the risk of the rocket stage blowing up, for example as a result of static electricity building up in the rocket stage. You do not want your rocket stage to blow up, as it creates an uncontrolable swarm of debris and includes the risk that particles are ejected into orbits where they do not decay quickly,  adding to the space debris risk.

The spiral pattern results when the rocket stage is spinning, perhaps as result of the fuel vent.

At the moment, Zuma is not visible from the Northern hemisphere because all passes are in daylight or earth shadow. This will change 1-2 weeks from now, depending on the exact orbital altitude. The sighting from Sudan does confirm the orbital plane the object should be in (that is: unless it did a manoeuvre into another orbital plane after separation from the Falcon - but I doubt that). So we have to wait now untill a new object is observed in this orbital plane.

The hunt is on!

UPDATE: some news sources are now claiming sources within the US military and US Government confirm the failure, saying the second stage of the Falcon 9 "failed" and stage and satellite crashed into sea.

This does not tally with the observations over Sudan, which show the Upper Stage did reach orbit. So my skepticism remains. If there is some truth to it nevertheless, it could point to option (3) above and subsequent misinterpretation in the press.

UPDATE 2: the adapter mating ZUMA to the Falcon 9 Upper Stage was not made by SpaceX, but by Northrop-Grumman itself (which is somewhat unusual). So if ZUMA did not separate from the Falcon 9 (and did a dive into the Indian Ocean with it), the blame is not on SpaceX but on Northrop-Grumman. In that case, the SpaceX declaration that the Falcon 9 performed "nominal" is correct, even if Zuma did not separate from it.

UPDATE 3 (17 jan 2018): It turns out that a ~52 degree inclined, ~660 km altitude orbit also fits the constraints of the de-orbit area and being over East Africa at the right time. So we are adding that option to the search efforts. I did a partial plane scan of the 50-degree orbital plane two days ago.

click map to enlarge

Ackowledgement: I thank Peter Horstink for his report, for providing additional information on request, and for the permission to feature his images on this blog. I thank Govert Schilling for bringing me into contact with Peter Horstink. The photographs with this post are (c) Peter Horstink.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

A new launch attempt for ZUMA [updated twice]

Probable launch trajectory of ZUMA
(click map to enlarge)

 UPDATE 1 4 Jan 2018 22:00 UT: The launch has again been postponed by one day, to January 7th (January 6 local time)

 UPDATE 2 5 Jan 2018 14:00 UT: The launch has yet again been postponed by one day, to January 8th (January 7 local time) and I have partly rewritten this post to reflect this.

UPDATE 3 11 Jan 20:00 UT: a follow-up post reflecting my changed thinking on what Zuma could be now we know it targetted a ~900-1000 km orbit, is here


[text updated/rewritten twice to reflect launch postponements]

If it isn't delayed even further, SpaceX will finally launch the secretive classified ZUMA satellite for the US Government on January 8th (January 7th local time in the USA) from Cape Canaveral pad 40 in Florida. The launch already has slipped three days from the initial January 5 aim.

The satellite was originally to be launched last November (see an earlier post) from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A but was postponed because of  issues with the payload fairing.

The launch hazard zones and the Falcon 9 upper stage de-orbit zone as gleaned from the Maritime Broadcast Warnings are virtually the same as in November, as was to be expected (there is a very small lateral shift in the launch hazard zone, which is probably related to the change in launch pad, but the direction of the area is the same). They are depicted on the map above.

From the launch azimuth (as gleaned from the launch hazard zones) and the location, extent and time window of the Falcon 9 upper stage de-orbit area, ZUMA will be launched into an approximately 50 degree inclined Low Earth Orbit. In the map above, a trajectory has been plotted for launch into a 50 degree inclined, approximately 400 km orbital altitude orbit. The orbital altitude is a bit uncertain and the eventual real orbit might be higher. [update: it probably is twice as high, from post-launch info discussed in a new post here]

The launch window runs from 1:00 UT to 3:30 UT (January 8th). The de-orbit of the Falcon 9 Upper stage happens some 2 hours after launch over the southern Indian Ocean north of Kerguelen, halfway during the 2nd orbital revolution.

As remarked in my earlier post from November, the launch hazard area and the apparent orbit aimed for as decuced from these hazard zones seem to be very similar to that of USA 276, the classified SpaceX launch for the US government from May 2017 which went into a 50 degree inclined, 400 km altitude orbit (see my article in The Space Review of July 2017). Compare the launch hazard zones of these two launches, they are very similar:

Launch hazard area of ZUMA (red) compared to that of USA 276 (blue)
(click map to enlarge)

Back in November there was some speculation that ZUMA might target the ISS orbital plane, just like the odd classified satellite USA 276 appears to have done last year (see my article in The Space Review of July 2017).

[the now following paragraphs have been heavily editted to reflect the situation change brougth on by the repeated launch delays. I retained some of the original text in striken-out grey for reference]

Another option is that it targets the plane of USA 276. For the initial launch date and window in November 2017, the orbital plane of  USA 276  would have passed over the launch site during the launch window, allowing a launch into the same orbital plane. After several days delay of the launch, the launch was postponed to January after the USA 276 orbital plane moved out of the launch window.

The new launch window for January 8th is the same as it was in November: 1:00 UT to 3:30 UT.

This excludes a launch (exactly) into either the ISS or USA 276 orbital planes, as the latter only pass over the Florida launch site after the launch window has ended.

This means launch into the orbital plane of USA 276 has become viable, as the latter's orbital plane passes over the launch site near 3:38 UT on January the 8th, only minutes after the end of the launch window. Note that for the original January 5 launch date, this was not possible.

This would seem to suggest that the coincidence in time of the launch window and orbital plane passages in November was indeed coincidence (but there is a "but": see below...).

[Edit 4 jan 22:00 UT: or maybe not. There are new delays, launch has now shifted to January 7 UT (January 6 local time) and passage through the USA 276 orbital plane is now very close to the end of the launch window. And it will shift into the launch window if more delays occur.]

On January 6th, the orbital plane of USA 276 passes over the launch site around 4:27 UT, an hour after the end of the launch window. The orbital plane of the ISS passes over the launch site around 7:04 UT, some 3.5 hours after the end of the launch window.

The image below shows the spatial separation of the orbital planes for launch on January 8th (January 7 local time).  For ZUMA, two planes are given (in red), one for launch at 1:00 UT and one for launch at 3:30 UT, representing the start and end of the launch window. The orbital planes for a 3:30 UT launch (end of launch window) and USA 276 (blue) almost coincide:

Relative orbital plane positions for ZUMA (red), USA 276 (blue) and the ISS (white)
Image has been updated twice
(click image to enlarge)

The launch already has slipped three days, and a few days more delay would slip the passage of the USA 276 orbital plane increasingly forward into the launch window, as the moment of orbital plane passage shifts about 24 minutes earlier in time each day. And a further delay eventually would do the same for the ISS orbital plane passage after several more days.

The official reason given for the delays of the past few days is "extreme" weather (strong high altitude winds). This might well be true, but there is always a possibility that the delays are a ruse to obfuscate (if that is the case) that the orbital plane of USA 276 is the actual target (there are historic precedents for such a ruse). That however remains speculation (emphasis), and it could well be that the actual launch time, when it happens, will be off from the moment the orbital plane of USA 276 is passed. We will see.

There is therefore very little to say with certainty about the possible function of ZUMA. But ZUMA is likely a technology demonstrator, i.e. an experimental satellite to show that a particular technology is feasible, as we also pressume USA 276 to be. I could (again) speculate that perhaps ZUMA and USA 276 are part of the same experimental program. As these two spacecraft were built by two different companies (Northrop-Grumman and Ball Aerospace), perhaps they are technology demonstrators in competition for a follow-up contract. But this is pure speculation. Many options are open.

Exactly how (if at all) the two satellites are related to each other remains murky. Maybe future orbital behaviour will shed some light on what ZUMA is doing.

For a further discussion of the ZUMA mission, see my earlier post from November 2017. Some TLE estimates for the orbit are here. They are based on the 50 degree orbital inclination gleaned from the launch azimuth, and an assumed ~400 km orbital altitude. [update: post-launch information leads me to think it went into a higher orbit, 900-1000 km, see the link to the new post below]

UPDATE 9 January 2018: a follow up is here, with spectacular images of a fuel vent by the Falcon 9 Upper Stage.

UPDATE  11 Jan: a second follow-up post reflecting my changed thinking on what Zuma could be now we know it targetted a ~900-1000 km orbit, is here.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

2017 in a nutshell

All measured positions of 2017
click map to enlarge

The year 2017 was a good year in as far as my satellite observations are concerned. I measured 1768 positions (see map above), on 95 different objects.

1715 of these were measurements on my own imagery from station 4353. Another 49 were on images taken by Paul Camilleri (station 8600) in Australia; and 4 were on imagery taken by Alain Figer in France. The diagram below shows the distribution of observations over the months.

click diagram to enlarge

The year 2017 was an interesting year, with interesting new avenues and quite some press attention. We chased a couple of new launches, of which NROL-76 (USA 276) was a peculiar one. I also started to give some serious attention to the analysis of North Korean missile tests.

I started to use new video software for the observations of objects in LEO in 2017, which increased the output and the accuracy of positions. Objects in HEO and GEO are still photographically imaged.

Medio 2017 I became a consultant in an interesting Space Situational Awareness project for the Space Security Center of the Royal Dutch Air Force. As part of this project I was temporarily employed at the Department of Astronomy of Leiden University.

In July in The Space Review I published an analysis of NROL-76 (USA 276) and its weird flyby of the International Space Station early June 2017, that generated some press attention. Late 2017, my analysis of  North Korean missile test launch imagery generated press attention too.

In December, I was interviewed by the Volkskrant (a major Dutch newspaper) about whether or not an "Arms Race in Space" was upcoming.

Unrelated to satellites, I was involved in the identification of the 6th meteorite of the Netherlands, Broek in Waterland,an L6 chondrite, in February, which we presented at Naturalis (the Dutch National Museum of Natural History) in June 2017. This resulted in me being a guest in the Live RTL Late Night TV show on national television.

In RTL Late Night with the Broek in Waterland meteorite
All in all, quite a remarkable year!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Effects of December 26 Russian TOPOL RS-12M ICBM test also seen from the Netherlands

Image (c) Bussloo Public Observatory/Mark-Jaap ten Hove
click to enlarge
On 26 December 2017, Russia's Strategic Missile Force conducted a flight test with a TOPOL RS-12M ICBM from Kapustin-Yar in Astrakhan. The test was "aimed at testing perspective armament for intercontinental ballistic missiles".

The test resulted in a sky phenomena that was photographed from East and Central Europe, and, as it turns out, even NW Europe. A luminous bubble-cloud like phenomena appeared in the eastern sky as seen from Europe. There is some incredible imagery from Austria, as well as other locations.

I sent out an alert to the operators of the Dutch photographic all-sky meteor camera network to see if perhaps they captured something. Most stations were clouded out, but the station at the Bussloo Public Observatory in the east of the Netherlands did capture the event, amidst clouds!

Above is a part of the all-sky image: the phenomena is the ghostly neon-blue glow due east, behind the clouds. Below it a part of the same image in more detail:

Image (c) Bussloo Public Observatory/Mark-Jaap ten Hove
click to enlarge
Bussloo is at 6.12 E, 52.20 N. It is 2800 km distant from Kapustin-Yar, which is at 82 degrees azimuth as seen from Bussloo, so almost due East.

The cloud is exhaust from the missile at (very) high altitude in space, illuminated by the sun.

In the image, taken at 03:44 UT (December 26), the top of the blue cloud is at an altitude of ~30 degrees (stars from Corona borealis are visible in the blue cloud: the bright star somewhat right of the center in the second image is Arcturus).

Assuming the cloud is right above Kapustin-Yar, this would place the top of the cloud at an altitude of ~3300 km. If it is closer in range (e.g. when expanding and/or drifting westwards), it is lower.

(I thank Bussloo Public Observatory (Mark-Jaap ten Hove) for their kind permission to publish their photographs and all the Dutch all-sky meteor camera operators for checking their imagery)

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

[UPDATED] Where to hide your nuclear missile submarine? (but be quick)

(Updated 20 Dec 2017 23:25 UT with a new plot that includes DSP)

Say, you are the leader of a nefarious country that is in posession of submarines equiped with long range nuclear missiles. You want to launch a stealth missile attack codenamed "Operation Orange Squeeze" on a northern hemisphere Super Power.

Where would you direct your submarine, and where would you best fire you missiles, from the perspective of an as-late-as-possible space-based detection of your missile launches?

The answer came to me today when, after a question by someone (in the context of a war crime investigation), I looked into the current global coverage of the Space Based Infra Red System (SBIRS), the US system of Early Warning satellites that looks for missile launches:

click map to enlarge

The red areas in the map above have an almost continuous coverage by SBIRS satellites (and often by multiple SBIRS satellites at the same time). The dark blue and black areas in the map by contrast have only a few minutes of SBIRS coverage each day, or even none at all.

As you can see, there is a clear gap in coverage in the southeastern Pacific, with lowest coverage in the area near the Galapagos islands. That is where I would park my nuclear missile submarine.

You might have to be quick to pull off your nefarious plan though. A new SBIRS satellite, the fourth satellite in the geostationary component, will launch in January. It wouldn't surprise me if it stops the gap, once operational.

Of course, this map is in fact somewhat deceptive anyway. It only shows the coverage by SBIRS. But there is also the legacy early warning satellite system called DSP (Defense Support System), which still has active satellites, and which is not taken into account here [UPDATE: but see the plot at the end of this post!]. It is less sensitive than SBIRS, but likely will detect your ICBM SLBM launch.

Back to SBIRS. SBIRS is made up of two components, each currently consisting of three satellites (so six in total): three geosynchronous SBIRS-GEO satellites at geostationary altitude, and three SBIRS-HEO satellites (TRUMPET-FO SIGINT satellites with a piggy-back SBIRS package) in 64-degree inclined Highly Elliptical Orbits with two revolutions a day.

click map to enlarge

The map above shows the coverage of the three geosynchronous SBIRS satellites (a fourth will be launched in January). Eurasia, Africa and the western Pacific Ocean has a continuous coverage by these satellites, with central Asia, Pakistan and India (the latter two known nuclear powers) particularly well covered.

The SBIRS-HEO coverage is more variable and depends on the date and time of day, but the system is designed such that at least one of the HEO satellites will have much of the Northern hemisphere in view at any time. Here are a few examples, for various times of the day: note how coverage of the Northern hemisphere is near-continuous (the HEO component also particularly covers the Arctic region well, which is at the edge of the GEO component's coverage).

click maps to enlarge
A SBIRS satellite typically has two modes: there is the scanning mode, which scans the whole visible hemisphere of the earth (as seen from the satellite) for infra-red heat signatures in less than 10 seconds. And there is the staring mode, a more sensitive sensor which can be used to observe a specific region or just detected infra-red event.

In the case of a missile launch, the sensors pick up the heat signal of the missile engine. Because of the large degree of worldwide coverage which the system now provides, an undetected stealth launch of a nuclear missile has become almost impossible.

SBIRS is probably an important source of  Early Warning capacity and information on the recent North Korean missile tests.

UPDATE 20 Dec 2017  23:25 UT:

I now also included the four DSP satellites that are still operational according to the database of the Union of Concerned Scientists. That leads to the following map:

click map to enlarge
As you can see, the gap has become smaller, but a gap is still there. Red October might be lurking in front of the South American west coast.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Objects from the Ariane VA240 launch (Galileo 19, 20, 21, 22) observed from the Netherlands [UPDATED]

image 18:53 ~ 18:56 UT. Photograph (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge

On 12 December 2017 at 18:36:07 UT, an  Arianespace Ariane 5 ES rocket launched four Galileo navigation satellites into space from Kourou, French Guyana, for the European Space Agency (ESA).

Twenty minutes later, amateur astronomer Klaas Jobse (Astronomy Project Oostkapelle) in the village of Oostkapelle on the coast of the Netherlands imaged a phenomena in the sky (photograph above and photographs below). The imagery appears to show the tumbling Ariane EPC (Cryogenic Main Stage) and what appears to be a fuel dump cloud, about 10 minutes after separation of the EPC from the upper stage.

In one of the all sky images, a second trail is visible too (see detail image of all sky image below): this might be the EPS Upper Stage with the satellites, around the moment it shuts down and starts its coasting phase.

All Sky image. (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge
detail of the previous image.
(c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge
All Sky image. (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge

detail of the previous image.
(c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlargee
The flashing behaviour of the main trail (the suspected spent Cryogenic Main Stage) is probably due to tumbling after separation from the upper stage. On the first image (the one at the top of this post), which is a 30 seconds exposure, it is flashing 9 times, or about once every 3.3 seconds.

The images were captured by the automated routine meteor fireball patrol camera's of Astronomy Project Oostkapelle, which make continuous photographs of the night sky every clear night.

This is the approximate trajectory of the launch which I reconstructed from the Area Broadcast Warnings and information in the Arianespace presskit. It is approximate only:

click map to enlarge

Update 1, 13 Dec 2017, 23:00 UT:

The map above was based on ascend to the parking orbit of the Upper stage. Below is a 178 x 3440 km, 54.95 degree inclined reconstructed orbit for the EPC Cryogenic Main Stage, fitted to match measurements on the first image (the image in top of this post). Orbital position shown is for 18:56 UT:

click map to enlarge
 The rocket stage probably de-orbitted near the end of the first revolution, at about 20:40 UT.

 Update 2, 14 Dec 2017, 22:45 UT:

An engineer supporting the launch (@Dutchspace on Twitter) provided the info that the EPC Cryogenic Main Stage should have been in a 42 x 3340 km, 55.35 degree inclined orbit after separation and depressurization, with de-orbit at longitude 90.28 W. The elset and map below suit those constraints, and fit the observations from Oostkapelle closely:

click map to enlarge

Ariane EPC r/b                                           42 x 3340 km
1 70004U 17999C   17346.77516204 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    07
2 70004  55.3500 305.8931 2043588 353.6368 349.8559 11.97683367    04

rms 0.06

Update 3, 16 Dec 2017, 11:00 UT:

The phenomena was also imaged from Germany (see this article in Der Spiegel, which quotes me) and from Belgium.

(I thank Klaas Jobse for permission to publish his photographs. Photographs (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Curious Incident of the ICBM that Launched by Night

image: KCNA

North Korea conducted a test launch of a new ICBM, the Hwasong-15 (KN-22)  on 28 November 2017. The launch was at 18:17 UT from a field just north of Pyongsong, not far from Pyongyang. It was a "lofted" test, reaching an incredible 4475 km apogee before coming down near Japan, 950 km east of the launch location and some 250 km out of the Japanese coast. It is a beast of a mobile launched ICBM:

images: KCNA

After the launch, North Korea's KCNA press/propaganda agency published several pictures, showing Kim Jung Un directing the readying of the TEL with missile, and the launch.

Several of these images, both from the missile erection sequence before launch and the launch itself, show stars. As part of the verification of a geolocation attempt, Jeffrey Lewis (@armscontrolwonk on twitter) of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, a well known wonk of the North Korean (and other) missile program, asked me to look into these starry backgrounds. Could I say something about image orientations?

I could, and it became very interesting. I initially looked at and measured these two pre-launch images (Jeffrey provided me with high-res versions of these: the ones shown here are the low-res versions from the KCNA website):

images: KCNA

These two images appear to be real (although, given what I will point out below, all images remain suspect, because they clearly aren't all real. With "real", I mean "untampered with" here). I used them to determine azimuth directions and the Local Sidereal Time (and from that UTC time) these images apparently were taken, by creating an astrometric grid over the image. In the image below, each dotted star is a reference star measured. The two images below it show the reconstructed azimuth range for each picture.

Of course, I now have reason to doubt the validity of this whole exercise. Because (hold on):

The real fun started when, yesterday evening, I started to look at the pictures of the actual launch moment. The fact that some of these show stars in itself is already something, as these images necessitate short exposures (unlike the pre-launch images above, which are long duration exposures), so you do not expect stars. But the real fun came when I looked at these stars visible. There, things clearly were not right!

Take these two images, which I have put next to each other for comparison:

Image: KCNA

The shape of the exhaust cloud and exhaust flame (and the number decal, extremities and paint job on the missile) clearly indicate they were taken from the same viewpoint, probably within a fraction of a second of each other. But take a look at the stars in the background: these then should show the same sky area, right?

But they don't!

One shows Orion, which is south-southeastwest. The other shows Andromeda with the Andromeda galaxy (this is a bit more clear in a higher resolution version I have), which is northwest. So these two images from the same viewpoint, show dramatically opposite sky areas.

Below is another example, doing basically the opposite. The mirror character of these two images, from the exhaust shape plume, exhaust flame shape, and the lack of number decal on the missile in one of the images, indicates they were taken from opposite viewing points. So the sky should show opposite sky areas on each of these, right?

images: KCNA
(NOTE: earlier version of image replaced with version correcting error in labelling)

Again, they don't.

The top one shows Orion (but with Betelgeuze missing). The bottom one shows Canis major (but with Sirius missing). Orion and Canis Major are very close to each other, south-southwest at the time of launch. The images should show opposing sky areas, but don't.

So clearly, the starry sky background was added to the imagery and is not original.

So why should North Korea have done this?

The most likely reason is simply that they did it for aesthetics. An ICBM soaring into the stars makes for good propaganda images. They apparently just didn't care enough to do it correctly.

Aesthetics seem to be important in North Korean propaganda pictures. They frequently photoshop the ears of Kim Jung Un in pictures, for example.

Or maybe they wanted to play a prank on analysts as well: they know these images will be analyzed by the west. Fooling around with clues as to the orientation of images makes it harder to glean information from them on 3-dimensional missile shape, and launch site geolocation.

To be clear (because some hare-brained individuals on social media seemed to think that was implicated, even though it nowhere is): nobody disputes that the launch was real.

It was, and it shows that North Korea now has an ICBM that can reach the whole US mainland. It can even reach my country, the Netherlands (although we are not a very likely target, I must ad):

But at least some of the launch images have been clearly doctored, and show elements that were added later. This is, of course, something we have seen earlier with North Korean propaganda images (some examples are given in the CNN article linked below).

End note: I still think the pre-launch imagery showing the TEL with missile being erected in the field is unaltered. So maybe my azimuth and timing determinations from these is are valid. But I cannot proof it, and of course now all the images must be considered suspect.

They do tally with some other evidence though, including this still I extracted from the KCNA released video, which briefly offers a glimpse of the moon, low in the west-southwest. If the video isn't doctored as well (!), this should be around 16:00-16:15 UT, some two hours before launch:

Still taken from KCNA video: moon indicated
If the video was not altered, then together with earlier images showing the missile on the TEL leaving the plant, this orientation means that any of the launch pictures showing the number decal on the missile should actually be looking Northeast to East.

My findings on the doctoring of the launch imagery featured in this CNN article from 5 December 2017 by Joshua Berlinger:  North Korea missile: Inconsistencies spotted in Hwasong-15 images

"Yay! We fooled those imperialistic coward dogs!" (image: KCNA)