Wednesday, 20 October 2010

SDS 3-4 (USA 179)

The image below is a part (at 100% pixel resolution) of one out of a series of images I took Sunday evening, using the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar MC 2.8/180mm lens. It shows the classified military communications satellite SDS 3-4 (USA 179, 2004-034A) . The star field is in Cepheus.

click image to enlarge

On the same evening I also imaged the Unknown 070914 (an object of unknown identity discovered by amateurs in 2007, in a HEO orbit) and the KH-12 USA 129 (96-072A).

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

2003 dreams and 2010 facts about the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) satellites

This article published in 2003 in the Army Space Journal contains the following quote on page 5 (lower part first column), regarding the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) satellites:

"The satellites will also be farther out in Space and much harder to detect"
Seven years later, what has come true of this? Two FIA satellites have been launched: one (USA 193) failed spectacularly. The second, the FIA Radar 1/USA 215 (10-046A) was launched a month ago as NROL-41.

It is indeed farther away than the NRO's previous radar reconnaissance satellites, the Lacrosses. The Lacrosses move in orbits with altitudes of 640 km (Lacrosse 2) to 720 km (Lacrosse 5). The FIA Radar 1 moves in an orbit at 1100 km, about 1.6 times as high as the Lacrosses.

But the "harder to detect" has not come true, at least not with the FIA Radar 1. With a brightness reaching magnitude +3.5 on a favourable pass, it can be easily seen by the naked eye, even from the city center of Leiden (which has a population of about 140 000). It shows up brightly on images made with a simple off-the-shelf DSLR and 50 mm lens (see the image near the end of my previous post). When courtyard amateur astronomy nabs it that easy, it is hardly "hard to detect".

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Again the FIA Radar 1 (NROL-41)

Last night was frosty and very, very clear. In the evening, I took pictures of the KH-12 USA 129 (96-072A), the HEO SDS 3-4 USA 179 (04-034A) and the geostationary ELINT USA 202/Mentor 4 (09-001A), low over the southeastern horizon. At the time of observation, it was some 4 degrees south of Jupiter.

click images to enlarge

I took a quick shot at Jupiter too with the Carl Zeiss Sonnar MC 2.8/180, to capture the moons of Jupiter. Here is the image, at 100% pixel resolution:

click image to enlarge

In the early morning, at 5:18 am local time, I watched and photographed a very fine pass of the FIA Radar 1 (10-046A) again. It attained a maximum brightness of +3.5 while crossing through Cassiopeia. Below is an image, showing the 'W' of Cassiopeia and the FIA Radar 1 trail (movement is from top to bottom).

click image to enlarge

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

At last the FIA Radar 1 (NROL-41), and the first images with the new Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar MC 2.8/180

Last weekend saw my first observation, at last, of the payload of the NROL-41 launch: the FIA Radar 1 (2010-046A). At 4:25 am local time it made a pass in the northern sky over Polaris, and became visible to the naked eye at a brightness of mag +3.5. Below is one of the two pictures, plus a picture of the launch patch of NROL-41.

click images to enlarge

The orbit of the satellite is unusual, as it is retrograde, and in fact resembles a retrograde version of the Lacrosse orbits. There is some speculation as to the why of this.

The object currently is actively manoeuvring: when I captured it, it was 34 seconds late with regard to just one day old elements after one such manoeuvre. The apparent intention is to create a frozen orbit.

A new lens added to the equipment

This weekend saw the first active use of a new piece of optics added to the repertoire: an old, DDR-made, Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar MC 2.8/180mm lens. The lens itself is renowned, for its sharpness. Originally made for 6x7 cameras, it provides very good sharpness from edge to edge on a DSLR image. Fitted with a P6 to EOS adapter, it works perfectly on my Canon EOS 450D. It yields almost twice the aperture of my EF 100/2.8, and hence will be used to capture faint distant objects such as Molniya orbit objects. The lens is of very heavy build: solid metal and glass with no plastics. It weights 1.5 kg!

Below is an image of the optics I am now using in my observations: a Canon EF 2.5/50 mm Macro used for LEO and some GEO objects; a Canon EF 2.8/100 mm Macro USM used fro MEO and HEO objects; and the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar MC 2.8/180 mm for HEO and GEO objects.

click image to enlarge

The advantage of the lens is that it goes deeper in magnitude of the objects it captures. A disadvantage is that it has a smaller FOV (6.8 x 5.0 degrees) which, with the software I use for astrometry (AstroRecord), means I have to carefully select the part of the sky to aim for (it should have enough stars brighter than +8 and at last 3 stars with a Flamsteed number, as the AstroRecord sequence starts with identifying 3 of those after which it starts to auto-identify stars). Especially the requirement of the 3 Flamsteed numbers in such a small FOV is limiting.
Anoher drwaback of this lens is that with 1.5 kg it is heavy! It is at the edge of what my lightweight camera tripod can carry, and hence vulnerable to vibrations.

On October 9 and 10 I used the lens to capture two Molniya-orbit (HEO) objects: USA 184 (06-027A), and USA 198 (07-060A, SDS 3F5). As a stray, it also captured another Molniya, the Russian US-KS Oko IR missile detection platform Kosmos 2393 (02-059A), and an old Russian rocket body in LEO (Kosmos 411 r, 71-041J). The image sequence shows that Kosmos 2393 was flaring at that time (20:14:02 - 20:14:12 UTC, 9 Oct 2010)

Below are two parts (at full pixel resolution) of one image that contained both USA 184 and Kosmos 2393 (the latter close to the edge of the image); and one of the images of USA 198.

click images to enlarge