Wednesday, 28 March 2012

(video) A last view of ESA's ATV-3, with ISS, FIA Radar 1 and an old Russian Soyuz upper stage

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This morning near 3:39 UTC (5:39 am local time), Europeans could witness the last visible pass of ESA's Space Freighter ATV-3 'Edoardo Amaldi' on its way to the International Space Station (ISS), less than a day away from docking to the ISS in the night of March 28/29.

I watched, photographed and filmed the pass from Leiden: footage shot with the WATEC 902H + 1.4/12mm lens, and a photograph made with the Canon EOS 450D + EF 2.0/35mm lens, can be seen above.

I got a very fine view with more than just the ISS and ATV visible. Just before the ISS became visible around 3:56 UTC a bit of  bright (mag +1) space-debris, an old Russian Soyuz Zenit upper stage crossed the sky (see first seconds of the video above, left in the FOV): 99-039B, the upper stage from the OKEAN-O launch in 1999 [edit 30/03/2012: it is a Zenit rather than a Soyuz r/b - with thanks to Ralf Vandeberg]. Next, the ISS emerged out of earth shadow eclipse near Arcturus, quickly attaining a brightness of -3 to -4. As it moved through Bootes, Corona Borealis, Hercules and into Lyra, the American military satellite FIA Radar 1 (10-046A) came into view, going the opposite direction of the ISS (nicely demonstrating that it is in a rare retrograde orbit, i.e. moves from east to west rather than west to east). As FIA Radar 1 started to descend to the west through Corona Borealis, ESA's ATV-3 came into view, again as a nice and bright naked eye object attaining about mag. 0 to +1. It followed the ISS by almost exactly 3 minutes, just a little bit too much separation alas to image the ATV and it's destination the ISS together. The photograph above (and the video) shows it together with the FIA Radar 1: ATV-3 is moving up, the FIA Radar 1 down! (note: for easthetic reasons, I photoshopped an annoying trail from the aircraft that can be seen in the video, out of the photograph).

The video ends with ATV-3 descending in the east and disappearing behind the roof of our appartement building.

I wish to thank Laurent Arzel (ESA) for providing me with predicted orbital elements with manoeuvres of ATV-3 taken into account. Some web-based satellite prediction services (and surprisingly, the German DLR in a tweet) used "old" elements from the 27th, that lead to erroneous pass times (off by over 5 minutes: these suggested the ATV was leading the ISS by 2.5 minutes, while in reality it was following by 2.5 to 3 minutes!). Thanks to Laurent's elements, I could plan for the correct situation and point some fellow amateur observers to the correct pass times.

With docking less than half a day away as I write this, our Dutch astronaut André Kuipers onboard ISS can look forward to fresh supplies of Dutch cheese soon!

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Video: ATV 3 'Edouardo Amaldi', a meteor, and the ISS this morning

This morning I was up early to capture the 3:29 UTC (5:29 am CEST) pass of ESA's space freighter ATV-3 "Edouardo Amaldi". This was just before the start of twilight, so the sky was still dark and several stars can be seen on the video. The video was shot from the center of Leiden town, from the east-facing window of my girlfriend's  appartment. Camera: WATEC 902H + 1.4/12mm lens.

The ATV emerged from Earth shadow at about 38 degrees elevation in the E-SE. Initially mag. +1, it was easily visible by the naked eye, then faded as it descended towards the horizon.

The movie also features footage of a nice 3-second meteor that appeared only a few minutes before the ATV pass: as well as footage of the ISS passing the same sky area about 30 minutes before the ATV.

 Brightest star in the FOV is Altair (alpha Aquila), with the stars of the Arrow just upper left of the center, and stars of the Dolphin near the GPS clock.

Below is also a photographic image, a 6-second exposure with the Canon EOS 450D + EF 2.5/50 mm Macro lens, showing the ATV on the border of Aquila and Sagitta.

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Note: with a special "thank you!" to Laurent Arzel at ESA ATV CC-flight dynamics for providing timely orbit forecasts!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Brightness variability of the NOSS 3-3 Centaur Upper Stage (with video)

NOSS 3-3 is a pair of US Navy NOSS surveillance satellites launched early 2005. The Centaur upper stage of this NOSS 3-3 launch, NOSS 3-3r (2005-004B) is still orbiting earth as well. And as it does so, it is tumbling.

This tumbling is visible to an observer as a regular variation in brightness. Currently, the rocket stage brightens up every 11.4 seconds.

Below video shows the regular variation in brightness: watch it go from faint to bright to faint etcetera with an 11.4 second period. It is footage from a pass over Leiden which I filmed in the evening of March 22, using the WATEC 902H and a Canon EF 2.0/35 mm lens:

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Using LiMovie, I extracted the brightness variation from the movie on a frame by frame basis, resulting in the depicted brightness profile above. Note that the tops of the curve are sharp, not rounded. It is a nice saw-tooth pattern. The integrated video frame picture shows the brightness variability nicely too.

Documenting this kind of tumbling behaviour (and notably how it changes over the years) can actually provide some valuable scientific data. A number of amateur observers specialize in these "flash observations", notably my fellow members of the Belgian Working Group Satellites (BWGS).

Footage of ATV 3 passing in morning twilight of March 24

The footage above shows the European cargoship ATV 3 'Edouardo Amaldi' as it passed over Leiden this morning near 4:54 UTC (5:54 am local time), deep in morning twilight (sun at less than -7 degrees elevation only). In the opening shot, Arcturus can be seen top right, and the ATV will appear from behind the chimney-pipe of the roof below.

ATV 3 was bright (magnitude 0 to -1.5) and easily visible by the naked eye. It was somewhat orangish in colour. Once past culmination, I lost it in the twilight glare to the east.

The footage was recorded with a WATEC 902H camera and a 1.4/12mm lens.

I also made some photographic pictures this morning, including this one:

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ATV 3 was launched by ESA yesterday from Kourou in French Guyana, and is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS) with supplies. I observed it yesterday morning as well, only 22 minutes after launch (see post and pictures here).

Friday, 23 March 2012

Video of Metop-A (06-044A) flaring brilliantly

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Metop-A (06-044A) is the first operational satellite in a planned series of European meteorological (weather) satellites. It was launched on 19 October 2006. Among satellite observers, it is known for frequently producing very bright flares. These flares occur when the solar panels reflect sunlight to the observer on Earth.

I captured such a flare with my video system yesterday evening: see the video above. The brilliant flare reached mag. -2 at 20:11:11.2 UTC (22 March 2012) and had a FWHM of 6.0 seconds.

Below the video is an integration of all the video frames, and a diagram of the brightness profile (made using LiMovie, wonderful software by Kazuhisa Miyashita). Camera was a WATEC 902H with Canon EF 2.0/35mm lens.

My GPS time-inserter unfortunately lost signal about a minute before the flare - hence why the display says "Bad GPS" in the video. Fortunately, in the preceding minutes I had recorded enough of time-signal in the video to extrapolate the time using the video frame rate. Hence, I am quite confident about the accuracy of the brightness profile.

Newly launched ATV 3 cargoship in twilight

This morning at 4:34 UTC, the European Space Agency ESA launched the third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargoship, ATV 3 "Edouardo Amaldi", from Kourou in French Guyana, bringing supplies to the International Space Station.

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Only 22 minutes later, around 4:56 UTC (5:56 am local time), it made a pass visible from Europe. The ATV was still connected to the Ariane upper stage at that moment. As seen from Leiden, it was a low pass at a maximum elevation of 24 degrees in the S-SE, and in deep twilight: sun at -7 degrees altitude.

Nevertheless it was easily visible by the naked eye around culmination, as a fast and steady mag. 0 to -1 object moving against a bright blue twilight background. The picture above is a 4-second exposure taken with the Canon EOS 450D + EF 2.8/24mm lens, 400 ISO.

Note added 24/03/2012: More observations from following nights, including video of a pass on the 24th, available here.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

SAR Lupe 4 and USA 129 (pass footage)

Like a few days ago, I used the WATEC 902H video camera  yesterday evening to film a pass of  USA 129.

Near 19:41:30 UTC (21 March), the same 10-degree wide FOV first saw the German military Radar satellite SAR Lupe 4 (08-014A) pass and then, only some 10 seconds later, the American KH-12 Keyhole optical reconnaissance satellite USA 129 (96-072A). Below is the resulting footage:

The FOV is about 10 degrees wide, and the two brightest stars are delta and gamma Uma in the Big Dipper. The lens used was a Canon EF 2.0/35mm lens. The camera is a WATEC 902H. Time insert is done by a GPS time inserter.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Footage of a pass of the KH-12 Keyhole optical reconnaissance satellite USA 129

Spring is a time when not only some birds appear out of their winter hiding, but some satellites emerge from winter darkness as well. Among them the evening plane KH-12 "Improved Crystal" Keyhole satellites.

The footage above shows one of these evening plane KH-12 Keyholes, USA 129 (96-072A), the oldest one still in orbit. The footage was shot by me in the evening of Monday 19 March, from my observatory in Leiden. The star field is a part of the tail of the Big Dipper: epsilon Uma at lower left and delta Uma at upper left. A WATEC 902H camera, GPS time inserter and Canon EF 2.0/35mm lens were used.

USA 129 was quite bright during this pass and well visible by the naked eye: initially near magnitude zero in Leo, then near magnitude +2.5 once culminating near Uma (the segment of footage shows it while it was near +2.5.)

The Keyholes are optical reconnaissance satellites, resembling Hubble Space Telescopes pointing to Earth surface. They image the earth with a resolution that is believed to be in the order of 10 centimeters (about 4 inch). Four of them are in orbit currently: USA 129 imaged above, USA 161, USA 186 and USA 224. USA 186 is an evening plane Keyhole just like USA 129: the other two are midnight plane Keyholes. On my 52 degree latitude, the evening plane Keyholes start to make visible evening passes in March, the midnight plane Keyholes during the late spring and summer (starting April-May).

Friday, 16 March 2012

MiTEx 1, AEHF 1 and Prowler

Weather conditions have not been too well lately. In the evening of March 14, I could do some imaging from Leiden, albeit under hazy skies. The relatively bright geostationary SIGINT Mentor 2 (98-029A) was the target.

In addition, I used a "remote" telescope, the 37-cm F14 Rigel Cassegrain of Winer Observatory (MPC 587) to image a few geostationary objects over US longitudes. Targets were (below images from top to bottom) the communication satellite AEHF 1 (10-039A), and the enigmatic objects MiTEx 1 (06-024A) and Prowler (90-097A).

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AEHF 1 (aka USA 214) is the first of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communication satellites that should replace the Milstar system. Because one of its onboard rocket boosters failed, the satellite had to be brought from GTO to its geostationary destination using smaller thrusters designed for station keeping, a procedure which took over a year.

This was the first time I imaged AEHF 1.

Prowler and MiTEx 1 are both enigmatic objects. Prowler's unique story has been discussed here before. MiTEx 1 (USA 187)  is an enigmatic object that has some connection to the Prowler legacy. Like Prowler presumably was, it was designed to inspect other satellites. Two MiTEx satellites were launched (in the same launch in 2006), MiTEx 1 and 2. They were used to inspect, amongst others, the failed DSP satellite DSP-23 in 2009. I imaged MiTEx 2 before, this was the first time I also imaged MiTEx 1.

André Kuipers talking from Space

This morning near 11:14 local time (10:14 UTC), Dutch astronaut André Kuipers onboard the ISS had a radio talk with a school class in Belgium on 145.800 MHz. From Leiden, I listened in using my old scanner radio and a homebrew dipole antenna (two hardware store 50 cm metal rods connected to a coax cable). Below is a recording of part of the reception (voice is André Kuipers, in Dutch):

The school class in question was a class from primary school De Regenboog in Bree, Belgium.

It is always cool to directly hear astronauts from Space. I listened in on André Kuipers talking from space before during his 2004 mission and several times have picked up communications between ISS astronauts and Russian ground stations in the past. You don't need fancy equipment for that: a normal scanner-radio and the kind of simple homebrew antenna I use will do. I use an old second-hand Realistic Pro 2042 receiver and a dipole antenna made out of a 1 meter M5 rod from the hardware store that I sawed in to 50 cm halfs, which are connected to the coax cable. Very simple but it works! See below image (cat is vital for good reception ;-p  )