Monday, 22 February 2010

Chasing satellites through clouds and unusual brightness behaviour of the STSS Demo 2

The evening of Saturday-Sunday 20-21 February saw a very dynamic weather situation. Fields of clouds came and went very rapidly: the sky could go from clear to clouded to clear to clouded again in a matter of minutes. It made it a big gamble whether a particular object would eb visible or not.

As it came to be, I hauled a nice batch of positions on several objects: Lacrosse 5 (05-016A), the Lacrosse 5 r/b (05-016B), the STSS Demo 2 (09-052B) and the NOSS 3-2 (03-054A & C) duo. I also photographed the NOSS 3-4 duo but the image was too much hampered by cliuds tp reliably measure it. I lost amongst others Lacrosse 4 and the STSS Demo 1 to clouds (the latter a pitty, as it was predicted to pass right through the Pleiades).

Most of the images have some clouds on them: some extensively. Below are a few pictures: from top to bottom they show the Lacrosse 5 r/b amidst clouds; The NOSS 3-2 duo passing between the Pleiades and the Hyades; and the STSS Demo 2 passing near capella and the three Goats:

click images to enlarge

The STSS Demo 2 appears to show an unusual brightness variation in the first 2 seconds of the trail (the left part of the trail in below negative image), consisting of what appear to be a series of even spaced modest glints. Note the dashed appearance of the first part of the trail:

click image to enlarge

Below is the brightness profile over the trail (grey small crossmarks are individual pixel values, the solid line is a 3 point average), and below that is a graph of the time between brightness maxima visible in the profile.

click diagrams to enlarge

Note in the second diagram how the time between maxima is very constant, at about 0.13 seconds, during roughly the first 2 seconds . After that, it begins to wildly vary. As the first diagram shows, the amplitude of the brightness variations is larger in those first 2 seconds too. In fact, after those first two seconds the variation is largely or completely random pixel variation.

The first 2 seconds of the trail are quite different in character from the rest of the trail though: a clear constant, larger amplitude pulsing behaviour. This is very interesting. A second image obtained on the STSS Demo 2 during the same pass showed a quite constant brightness.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

A magnificent view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-130 and the ISS in tandem!

click image to enlarge

The weather predictions for this morning suggested a possibility of clear sky - and hence a possibility to see a morning twilight pass of the duo Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-130 and the International Space Station, which decoupled a few hours earlier.

I observed from the appartment of my girlfriend this time, who lives at the 2nd floor of the same building as me. This allowed a wide vista over the rooftops towards the west and southwest. The pass happened around 6:49 am local time (5:49 UTC on the 20th), the sun was at an altitude of -10 degrees, and hence twilight coloured the sky already. I could see Saturn, Spica and a couple of other stars, low in the southwest. The pass would reach a maximum altitude of 20 degrees.

The pair was easy to see as they majestically sailed over the rooftops in the twilight sky, rising over the rooftops below Saturn and then passing Spica. They were very close, 1.7 degrees apart around 5:49:30 UTC (measured from the photograph above), passing the same point about 3.7 seconds apart. The Shuttle, at around magnitude 0 to +1 the fainter of the two, was slightly ahead of, and a tiny bit lower in declination than, the ISS, which attained about magnitude -1 to -2. A magnificent view!

Above is one of three pictures I took. They suffered a bit from vibrations, as I had only limited space to put up the tripod in the window-sill of my GF's bedroom, and the window-sill apparently did transfer some vibrations to the tripod & camera. The picture shown above shows the duo close to Spica (alpha Virgo) and is the image with the least "wobbly" trails. Movement of both objects is from right to left in the picture.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Slowly uncovering more clues in the Misty-2/USA144 patch

I have written before about the launch patch of the enigmatic USA 144 launch from Vandenberg on 1999 May 22. This was possibly the Misty-2 stealth satellite (99-028A; while a piece of debris or intentional decoy from the same launch frequently observed by me and other trackers is 99-028C, the "USA 144 Decoy"):

In my earlier post, I wrote that the meaning of the tiger symbol remained a mystery. In this I based myself on noted patch intelligence sleuth Dwayne Day in his discussion of this patch in an overview article in The Space Review, who considered that the tiger was unexplained, although one option was that perhaps it might have "a hidden symbolic meaning for the program (like the dragons)". (the latter comment about dragons points to the use of winged dragon symbolism in launch and mission patches for SIGINT satellites).

I think I now might have come somewhat closer to interpreting the tiger on the patch. I think that, like the half illuminated earth globe with satellite, it designates a unit involved in the launch and mission.

Let me first recapitulate what I wrote earlier here. The black and white gridded globe with revolving satellite clutched in the tiger's claws, appears to be a reference to the 4th Space Launch Squadron (4th SLS), whose patch emblem was this one below:

The 4th SLS had almost exactly a year before the launch fused into the 2nd SLS, which itself is mentioned in the rim text of the USA 144 patch.

Note that the four yellow stars also feature in the 4th SLS patch. The 2nd SLS has only three stars in its emblem, which might explain the difference noted by Dwayne Day: "Another mystery is why the patch contains four stars, whereas the tee-shirt logo contains only three".
(alternatively, and maybe simultaniously, it could refer the 614th Space Operations Flight - see below - which had 3 gold stars in its emblem)

The tiger

But now: the tiger. I found the same symbolism of a tiger with an earth globe between its paws in this patch, which is a patch of the 614th Space Intelligence Squadron.

This unit post-dates the USA 144 launch, as the unit was activated in 2003 (the launch was in 1999). It is however a spawn of the 614th Space Operations Squadron, which was activated (as the 614th Space Operations Flight) in 1996, before the Misty-2 launch. The 614th Space Operations Squadron also featured the tiger symbology, in the form of two tiger eyes in the emblem patch:

The mission of the 614th SOPS was to "provide the component commander for Air Force space forces, COMSPACEAF, the expertise to command and control Aerospace forces in continuous support of global and theater operations".

Both the (related) units had headquarters based at Vandenberg. They have since all gone up in the 614th Air and Space Operations Center, which again has a tiger in its emblem.

Given the connection of this lineage of units to Vandenberg launches and tiger symbolism, I feel the tiger on the USA 144 patch could well represent the 614th Space Operations Squadron or a sibling unit.

In view of the establishment of the 614th SOPS/SOPF relatively shortly before the launch, maybe the text "The Cat's Out of the Bag!" could refer to USA 144 being perhaps the first mission initiated since it's formation. (from what I have found so far, it is not clear when the 614th SOPF became the 614th SOPS, but the transformation seems to have been completed by mid-1999). It is a nice double reference to the tiger of the 614th SOPS and the common meaning of the phrase "to let the cat out of the bag" (disclosing a secret, which basically is what a launch does: you let the thing that remained hidden so far fly out in the open).

Monday, 15 February 2010

Again USA 200, and another Proton Breeze-M tank

A somewhat belated report on the 11th. It was very clear on the night of 11-12 Feb. As I had dinner guests, I couldn't take advantage of it during the LEO window, but I did target a suitable HEO object later that night when my guests were gone: USA 200 (08-010A).

Like two nights earlier, the images with USA 200 contain a Russian Proton Breeze-M tank as a stray. It is another one than that of Feb 9th however: this time it was 06-056B, the Breeze-M tank of the MEASAT 3 launch.

Below images (both with the EF 100/2.5 Macro USM) show the short fat trail of USA 200, and the longer trail of the Breeze-M tank.

click images to enlarge

Friday, 12 February 2010

Mexican "impact" / fireball event is NOT due to Kosmos 2421 debris

News is doing the rounds of a spectacular fireball/sonic boom near Mexico city on 10 Feb, 18:30 local time (= 11 Feb, 00:30 UTC).

Initial reports talked about an actual impact with a 30 meter wide crater and damage to a bridge and road. That seems not to be the case.

Subsequent news releases suggested that it was a piece of Komsos 2421 debris impacting (06-026 HK, #33006).

For a summary, see Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog post here.

However, this event was certainly NOT due to the mentioned piece of space debris. The object in question was, contrary to apparent statements by a spokesman of the Mexican Space Agency (?), no way near passing over Mexico in a window of several hours around the reported time:

click image to enlarge

In addition, there are elements available with an epoch 0.75 days after the event, suggesting it indeed was still in orbit after that time. I used Alan Pickup's fine SatEvo software with the current F10.7 solar flux parameter (94) to predict a decay near 12 Feb 9h UTC, 1.25 days after the Mexican event.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

USA 200 and a Proton Breeze-M tank - UPDATED

The last 3 weeks have been clouded and saw no opportunity to observe. Yesterday around midnight, I however noted it had cleared. It was a short duration clearing only before clouds bringing snow came in again, but the sky quality was quite good.

I tried to target the HEO USA 200 (08-010A) with the EF 2.5/100 Macro while it was passing through Auriga, but had bad luck: it didn't show up on the pictures, presumably being a bit too faint this time. Checking the images more carefully a few hours later, I discovered it some 0.35 degree off from the predicted position, being almost half a minute late.

The same picture series captured a stray unclassified object: a Russian Proton upper stage Breeze-M tank, 08-057B, from the 5 Nov 2008 launch of the Astra 1M satellite. Below is an animated GIF showing the trail (which was close to the image edge), and a picture of it's orbit. The animated GIF is constructed of 5 10-second exposure images taken at 20 second intervals.


click image to enlarge