Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A flashing GPS satellite (Navstar 39, USA 128)

This blog's readers will be familiar with the Global Positioning System (GPS). These US navigational satellites provide us with navigational aid, whether you are on a boat, aircraft, in a vehicle, hiking, or just using your cellphone. Our modern world would be nowhere without them.

But have you ever seen a GPS satellite?

click image to enlarge

In the evening of June 25 I by chance captured one of the 41 operational a GPS satellite that was decommisioned last year on photograph: Navstar 39 (USA 128, GPS 2A-27, 1996-056A). It showed up as a very bright small trail  and was flashing at a rate of  2-3 flashes per 10 seconds. Above is a compilation of the photographs taken (Canon EOS 60D with Samyang 1.4/85mm lens).

GPS satellites do not usually get this bright: the satellite was evidently flaring due to a favourable sun-satellite-observer line-up. As this is a decommisioned satellite, the flashing could be due (I am not sure) to the satellite having lost attitude control and being spinning.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

30 (mostly) geostationary objects in one image

Click image to enlarge

The image above was made by me just after midnight of June 18-19, 2012. It is a single image taken with my new Canon EOS 60D and a SamYang 1.4/85mm lens (800 ISO, 10s exposure). It was shot from the center of Leiden town.

The image shows a 11 x 14 degrees wide field low in the south-southeastern sky, between 20 and 30 degrees elevation above the horizon. Diagonally over the image runs a part of the geostationary belt, at declination -7.4 deg for my location.

In this single image, as much as 30 mostly geostationary satellites are visible: 23 commercial geostationary satellites, 1 classified military geostationary satellite (Milstar 5, 2002-001A), and 6 rocket boosters.

I did a poor job with the focus of this image, resulting in a slight unsharpness (especially near the edges of the image). Yet, the number of  objects nevertheless visible in this small piece of low southern sky is amazing!

This is just one of several images I took that night. Apart from Milstar 5, a number of other classified (military) geostationary satellites were imaged and astrometry on them obtained.

PAN in it's new position at 37.9 E

One of these objects is PAN (2009-047A), an enigmatic satellite I have written about before. Here is an image from June 18-19:

click image to enlarge

One of the curious aspects of this strange classified geostationary satellite operated by an undisclosed agency (see Dwayne Day's article in The Space Review), is that it is very frequently repositioned. It recently did so again (see my imagery of May 16, when it was still on the move). It has now stopped drifting and taken up position at 37.9 deg E (a position it has occupied before) not far from Paksat 1R, as can be seen in the image above. A stray Atlas Centaur rocket booster passed the area as well when the image was taken.

Vortex 4 and Mercury 2

Other classified objects imaged include  the older geostationary satellites Vortex 4 (1984-009A) and Mercury 2 (96-026A), the latter of which currently also is on the move (it is probably being sent to a disposal orbit after reaching the end of its operational mission):

click image to enlarge

Vortex 4  (launched on 31 January 1984) and Mercury 2 (USA 118, launched on 24 April 1996) both are SIGINT (eaves-dropping) satellites, with the Mercury being a further advanced version of the Vortex.

In addition, a newer SIGINT satellite was imaged as well,  Mentor 4 (2009-001A, one that frequently features in this observational blog, as it is bright and easy to observe), and the object designated by our amateur network as  UNK 060616 (probably an old r/b).

Prowler, AEHF 1 and DSP F15 imaged from Winer observatory, USA

While the above imaging was all done from my home in the Netherlands, I also imaged a few objects 'remotely' using the UoI Rigel (MPC 857) 37-cm Cassegrain telescope at Winer Observatory, Sonoita, Arizona, USA.

The enigmatic Prowler (1990-097E), a clandestine launch from Space Shuttle mission STS-38 which has featured on this blog more often (read the intriguing story of Prowler here; plenty of suspense!) was imaged on June 19 and 22. On June 19 I also imaged the military communications satellite AEHF 1 (2010-039A), and on June 22 the old DSP Infra-red early-warning satellite DSP F15 (1990-095A). Images of these objects below:

click images to enlarge

Comet 185P/Petriew

In addition to all these satellites, two  Solar System Minor Bodies were imaged: 2012 LZ1 and 185P/Petriew.

I posted imagery of the June 15 fly-by of Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 2012 LZ1 here before in my previous post, and obtained more astrometry on this object on subsequent nights. In addition, I obtained some imagery on the faint periodic comet 185P/ Petriew on June 22. Below is a stack of 5 images of 45s exposure each:

click image to enlarge

Not a pretty picture, but the comet was near magnitude +17 to +18! My astrometry has been included in MPEC 2012-M33 (22 June).

New camera: a Canon EOS 60D

I had completely forgotten to mention this: during the second half of May, my EOS 450D camera broke down. During a macro-session on Dragonflies, the shutter broke. Much to my regret.

I had the choice between having the shutter repaired (expensive), or buying a new camera. I choose the latter option, as the new generation of EOS cameras performs notably better than the 450D, especially in performance at high ISO (less noise). So I decided to upgrade.

The choice I made was for the Canon EOS 60D, an 18 MP DSLR with Digic IV processor. So far (and having mostly used it for "normal" photography for now) I very much like it!

Before I can use it on satellites in Low Earth Orbit, I'll first have to complete a calibration program with the camera. This calibration entails the delay between the moment you press the shutter button and the exposure is actually taken; and the real duration of exposures (a "10 second" exposure is not exactly 10.00 seconds). I have some preliminary calibration results by now, but it will take some time before I have final results and can start to use the camera regularly on satellites. For geostationary satellites (where the timing accuracy isn't that much of a factor; rather the astrometry is) the preliminary results I have mean I can already use it (as has been done, see this post).

Saturday, 16 June 2012

OT: Near Earth Asteroid 2012 LZ1 fly-by imaged, June 15

On June 10, 2012, Australian Siding Spring astronomer Rob McNaught and colleagues discovered a bright Near Earth Asteroid (NEA). It got the provisional designation 2012 LZ1 and turned out to be large: it is estimated to be about 500 meter in diameter (UPDATE 22 June 2012: radar observations from Arecibo obtained during the fly-by actually showed it to be twice as large, i.e. 1 km diameter! This suggests a low albedo, which might imply a carbonaceous composition). It made it's closest approach to the earth/moon system around midnight of June 14/15. With a pass distance of 5.3 million km (a multitude of the Earth-Moon distance), this flyby was not particularly close. But because the asteroid is large, it became quite bright, ~ mag. +13.

In the early morning of June 15, some 9 hours after closest approach, I used the "remote" 37-cm F/14 Cassegrain of UoI Rigel observatory at Sonoita, Arizona, USA (MPC 857, the same telescope that I often use to image geostationary satellites)  to image the asteroid (I also obtained some imagery using the larger 61-cm telescope of Sierra Stars Observatory in California).

click image to enlarge

The image above is a stack of 4 CCD images, each of 30 second exposure and spaced 5 minutes in time, obtained with the Rigel telescope. The asteroid can be seen as a set of 4 short trails lining up. It was moving at a rate of about 35"/minute near the Aquila-Capricorn border at that time and was near mag. +13.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Visiting ESTEC for the #AndreTweetUp, an in-flight call with astronaut André Kuipers

On 29 May 2012, some 80 space and twitter enthusiasts gathered at the European Space Agency's (ESA) ESTEC center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, for a "tweetup" called the #AndreTweetUp. This author was among them.

 AndreTweetUp attendants (photo: ESA)
click image to enlarge

A "tweetup" is a gathering of twitter users. ESA organised the event around a live in-flight call with Dutch astronaut André Kuipers who is onboard the ISS. Eighty followers of the twitter acount of  André Kuipers were invited to attend, after a selection procedure that included the formulation of a question to Kuipers.

Ten of the 80 people present, actually got to ask that question during the live in-flight call . The event  included two lectures, a guided tour through the ESTEC facilities, and ended with the live video in-flight contact.

Dutch astronaut André Kuipers onboard the ISS live from space on the screen, and Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang in front of the screen moderating the live in-flight call (click image to enlarge)

For this author, who was among the lucky 80 to be invited (but alas not among the even more lucky 10 who got to ask their question to Kuipers), this kind of event was new. I jumped the twitter bandwagon late, a few months ago, and untill this #AndreTweetUp occasion, I had never heard of "tweetups".

So I had no idea what to expect. I half expected a hall full of Sheldon Coopers, dressed in Star-Trek costume, mumbling "fascinating!". Or 80 Wolowitzes, trying to hit on the ESA hostesses and talking about the space toilet they designed.

The reality was more benign. Indeed, there were a few people walking around wearing an astronaut's flight jacket covered in space-related patches (mind you: one of those actually was a genuine astronaut: ESA's Christer Fuglesang). And there were a couple of tweeps that seemed to build a life around this kind of events, recognizable by their paraphernalia that included custom t-shirts  and keychains with the words "tweetup" and "space" prominent and a mascotte in the form of a space-suit clad bear called Hughie:


But all of these people turned out to be quite nice and normal! The evening before the event, I had a great time as part of an informal evening drink with a few of them (including but not limited to  @travelholic, @4tuneQkie, @DanielScuka and @rtimmermans) in "Einstein" in Leiden:

 Me (right) talking with ESA's Daniel Scuka (@danielscuka, left) about Space and Neandertals with Alex Neumann (@4tuneQkie, seen on back) listening, at the #spaceborrel in Einstein (Leiden) the evening before the tweetup (photo by Eico Neumann/@Travelholic)

You see: this almost looks like normal people! ;-)

Of course, this wouldn't do, so during the tweetup ESA had us all dressed in nerdy t-shirts with the ESA logo and "#AndreTweetUp" on it  ;-)

To bring in the Wolowitz factor, one of the things they let some of us do, was remotely move a robot arm on a future moon-rover located in a lab in Italy. Below is me, giving the command "move arm to left" (no word yet whether they got the rover out of the ditch again).

My Wolowitz moment: remotely moving a robot-arm on an ESA moonrover in a lab in Italy

The program was varied and started with a presentation by ESA's Walker including music videos that amongst others Elton John had made especially for this ISS mission. Walker told that by teaming up with Elton John, the amount of website hits on the ESA mission page increased a factor 2000!

  Tweeps and their laptops (for twittering) in the Erasmus hall

Next we had a very fine video presentation by one of the attendants, Remco Timmermans (@rtimmermans on Twitter), who had travelled to Baikonur to see the launch Soyuz TMA-03M blasting off Kuipers to the ISS.

We were then split-up for a guided tour through the ESTEC facilities, including a peek in the clean-labs (where alas photography was not allowed) and a 3D presentation where we got a virtual tour "trough" the ISS.

And of course, a notable number of the attendants duly tweeted all their experiences as the day progressed (photo shows a few of them listening to an explanation at the Russian Foton capsule, and tweeting about it):

The hall where we tweeps were settled, had enough to see too, as it included amongst others a life-size mockup of the European ISS module Columbus, a genuine Foton capsule and  the genuine Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator (ARD) capsule, the only European capsule having been to space and then re-enter and land safely:

 Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator (ARD). This capsule (it is the original) went to space and came back

Life-size Columbus module mock-up (multiple image stitch)

Russian Foton capsule (original)

Overview of the Erasmus hall, with mock-up Columbus module

Next Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang lectured us on his experiences with travelling to the ISS onboard a Space Shuttle, and introduced the very varied research done onboard the ISS:

ESA astronaut Christer Fuglesang, went to space twice

And then it was time for the big moment: the live in-flight video call with Dutch astronaut André Kuipers who is flying onboard the ISS as part of the PromISSe mission. The contact happened at 15:55 UTC (17:55 CEST) while the ISS was over the Galapagos and S-America, by means of a TDRS relay.

Here are some of the lucky 10 that got to ask their question lining up:

Even a "celebrity", soap-actress Babette van Veen (worldfamous in the whole of the Netherlands), got to ask a question (at ~6:15 in the video at the bottom of this post):

Below is a video showing parts of the in-flight call (as the memory card in my camera had filled up, I had no space left to film the complete in-flight call. I thought 8 Gb was enough, but no...).

It was fun and interesting to be present at this happening, and I wish to express a sincere "Thank you!" to the people of ESA and ESTEC for organizing this day!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Update on IGS 1B (10 June 2012)

We are slowly getting closer to the uncontrolled re-entry of the 1.2 tons malfunctioned Japanese spy satellite IGS 1B (2003-009B). The satellite's orbit has by now dropped below 340 km altitude (see second diagram below, perigee/apogee values from orbits calculated by Mike McCants based on amateur observations including mine). That is well below the ISS orbital altitude (ISS is currently in a 392 x 406 km altitude orbit). A mere month ago it was still considerably higher, in a 366 x 368 km orbit: it lost over 25 km or orbital altitude since. It is dropping fast, and the rate increases (see diagram below).

Using the latest amateur orbital elements for the object and Alan Pickup's SatEvo software with the current 10.7 cm solar flux, re-entry is currently estimated to occur between mid-July and early August 2012.