Thursday, 29 November 2012

Video of my lecture (in Dutch) on Hunting for Asteroids and the Van der Bilt Prize ceremony, 10 November 2012

As related earlier on this blog, I was much honoured to receive the Dr J. Van der Bilt Prize of the Royal Dutch Astronomy and Meteorology Association (KNVWS) on November 10, 2012.

The post linked above already provides a narrative of that day and a couple of photographs. This current post is to point the interested reader to video of the ceremony (in Dutch), shot by my GF:

As is customary, I did a 1-hour lecture on (part of) the activities which earned me this prestigious prize. In my case, the lecture focussed on my asteroid search activities.

Video of that is below, in three parts of approximately 20 minutes each. The lecture is in Dutch. Ignore the camera repositioning near the start of part I, it becomes stable after a few minutes (when also my lecture gathers more steam):

Part I (20 minutes):

Part II (20 minutes):

Part III (15 minutes):

Friday, 23 November 2012

UNID geosat Unknown 121118 is probably the classified SIGINT Mercury 1 (94-054A)

As I reported on this blog earlier, I discovered an unidentified object in an 8.4 degree inclined geosynchronous orbit in the evening of November 18 (see images below). It was given the designation "Unknown 121118" and also observed by Greg Roberts from South Africa the next evening, showing it to be truely geosynchronous at longitude 48 E.

click images to enlarge

I initially thought it would probably be a commercial satellite that had been recently relocated. However, as USSTRATCOM has still not identified the object, we are beginning to suspect it is a classified object, and we have some idea of its identity.

Ted Molczan pointed out that the 8.44 degree inclination is similar to that of Mercury 1 (94-054A). The brightness of the object is similar too. Mercury 1 was last located over the western Atlantic near 43 W, and had not been observed for over two months. Peter Wakelin imaged its former position on November 21 and could not find it. So there is a good chance it has been moved, and is my Unknown 121118, now located at 48 E.

click map to enlarge

The Mercury (also known as 'Advanced Vortex' ) geostationary satellites are classified US military SIGINT ('eavesdropping') satellites. Two were launched during the 1990-ies: the launch of a third one failed when the rocket booster malfunctioned, destroying the satellite. Mercury 1 (94-054A) launched on 27 August 1994 was the first. Given that it now appears to have been repositioned and is station-keeping at 48 E, is appears to be still operational, 18 years after it was launched.

Why it has been repositioned over 48 E, somewhere within the last two months (and probably near the more recent part of that timespan) is a matter of speculation. Maybe it is monitoring communications on the Syria-Turkey border; maybe it is listening in on Iran; or maybe it is monitoring communications of Somalian pirates near the Horn of Africa.

In June this year I imaged Mercury 1's sister ship Mercury 2 (see here), which was of a similar brightness as 'Unknown 121118'. That object at that time seemed headed for a graveyard orbit and hasn't been observed for a while. It has a slightly larger orbital inclination than Mercury 1 / Unknown 121118.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

PAN, other Geostationary satellites, and another UNID (this time Greg's)

As reported earlier I had a prolific observing session on Geostationary satellites in the evening of November 18th, discovering amongst others an unidentified geostationary object now temporarily designated Unknown 121118 (see here and follow-up here with imagery by Greg from S-Africa: an more on it near the end of the current post).

Below is some more imagery showing various classified and unclassified objects. All images were made using a Canon EOS 60D with a SamYang 1.4/85mm lens at ISO 1000.

Unknown 20121117 (Greg's UNID)

The November 18th imagery includes imagery of a second unidentified object, Unknown 121117 discovered by Greg Roberts (CoSaTrak) from South Africa a day earlier on the 17th (a third initially reported  'unid 'by Greg turned out to be identifiable as a known object, a Chinese CZ-3C r/b). So Greg recovered my Nov 18th UNID on the 19th, and I recovered Greg's Nov 17 UNID on the 18th: nice teamwork!

The image below shows it together with a number of nearby commercial geosats (the veil-like lighter streaks in the image are cirrus clouds, who had begone to invade an initially clear sky):

click image to enlarge

Below is one of Greg's images of the object from 17 November taken from S-Africa: in my image above taken a day later the object has drifted quite a distance more to the West.

(image courtesy Greg Roberts, CoSatTrak S-Africa)

Unknown 121117 is a truely uncatalogued object. There is nevertheless some idea about the identity of this satellite, but I am currently not allowed to provide more information.


PAN (09-047A) and the nearby commercial geosat Paksat 1R visible in Greg's Nov 17th image are visible on my Nov 18th imagery as well. The image below basically fits to the upper image above (see the Eutelsat pair visible in both images), giving you a sense how Greg's Unknown 2012117 has moved in a day time:

click image to enlarge

I have written about PAN on this blog several times before: it is an enigmatic classified satellite that frequently relocates.

Mentor 4, Thuraya 2 and the Mentor 1r

Among the other objects imaged were the SIGINT Mentor 4 (and the nearby commercial satellite Thuraya 2), and a r/b from the Mentor 1 launch, Mentor 1r.

Mentors (the biggest geostationary satellites in existence and the biggest man-made objects in space with exception of the ISS) are relatively bright objects (typically mag. +8):

click image to enlarge

I already posted imagery of another Mentor, Mentor 5, as well as the SIGINT Vortex 6 in an earlier post.

More on my UNID, Unknown 121118

This object in an 8.5 degree inclined geosynchronous orbit (see here and here for earlier coverage) remains 'unidentified' (i.e., is not present in public orbital catalogues such as USSTRATCOM's): we are however starting to believe it could be a classified object that has recently been moved to this location from somewhere else. It is currently positioned over 48.3 E and appears stable in longitude:

click map to enlarge

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Greg's Nov 19th imagery of my geostationary UNID (UNK121118)

click image to enlarge (image courtesy Greg Roberts)

The imagery above is posted with kind permission of Greg Roberts (CoSaTrak, South Africa). It depicts the same geosynchronous UNID that I imaged from the Netherlands on the 18th, in an image Greg shot from South Africa on the 19th.

This object does not match with anything in USSTRATCOM's current satellite catalogue, or in our classified satellite catalogue. It probably is a commercial satellite that very recently has been relocated to this spot: if so, USSTRATCOM seems not yet aware of it.We have not been able yet to identify which satellite it could be.

For my November 18 discovery imagery of this object, click here.

As the object moves in an orbit with an inclination of 8.1 degrees, it makes a small daily "up and down wobble" perpendicular to the celestial equator (many geosynchronous objects do that). This is the reason it is showing a small trail in this 40-second exposure.

(the nearby object marked EUTE 48A in the imagery is the commercial geostationary satellite Eutelsat 48A)

Monday, 19 November 2012

An Unidentified geostationary object

Yesterday evening was (initially) very clear. I took the opportunity to image the USA 144 decoy (1999-028C)  in the early evening, and then do a survey of the eastern geostationary belt between 23h and 24h LT.

The USA 144 decoy passed close to the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and was caught together with this galaxy and a Breeze-M tank (2011-021C, from the Telstar 14R launch):

click image to enlarge

The session on geostationary satellites later in the evening was ended by incoming cirrus, but not before a fair number of objects was imaged.

A UNID geosat in Orion

Among them was a bright unidentified object in an 8-degree inclined (near-) geostationary orbit captured in several images.

The images below (overview, and then details) show it in Orion together with the Orion nebula, a Chinese r/b (Beidou CZ-3C r/b, 2010-024B), and the classified SIGINT objects Mentor 5 (USA 237, 2012-034A) and Vortex 6 (1989-035A).

click images to enlarge

While the object is unidentified at the moment, it probably is a commercial geostationary satellite that is being moved to a new slot or to a graveyard orbit: but with the tracking network of USSTRATCOM not having noted this yet.

For the moment, the object has been designated as Unknown 121118. It moves in this very approximate orbit (calculated by Mike McCants):

Unknown 121118
1 99991U 12009B   12323.84298080 0.00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    02
2 99991   8.1179  50.0556 0005003 274.8696  85.1304  1.00270000    07

Initially, I thought it might be the same "unid" reported by Greg in the same general area the day before, but it turns out to be another object. Greg's "unid" was identified by Mike as 2010-024B, a Beidou CZ-3 r/b, actually the same object that can be seen close to USA 237 in the images above.

UPDATE 19-11-2012, 20:20 UT: Greg Roberts just mailed me that he recovered the UNID from South Africa at virtually the same position, so it is geostationary. See follow-up post here.

Belated: imaging ATV-3 late September

click images to enlarge

I am very much belated in posting the images above: they show ATV-3 imaged by me in morning twilight of 30 September 2012. The lower of the two images was my entry to ESA's ATV photo contest and won 3rd place (earning me a nice ATV t-shirt: thank you ESA!).

This was the only morning between undocking and reentry that was not clouded (well: as you can see in the images, it wasn't exactly clear either).

The observing session in question was the last one where I was accompanied by our late cat Pippi, who died a month later.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Is it a bird, or a possible UNID satellite?

Yesterday, asteroid (2397) Lappajarvi would occult the mag. +7.8 star HIP 19971 in Taurus. I was some 106 km outside of the predicted occultation zone but inside the 1-sigma uncertainty zone, so I covered the event using my WATEC 902H video camera and SamYang 1.4/85mm lens (no occultation was seen, as expected).

However: while setting up the system and checking it out with an aim on the Pleiades, I filmed either a bird or a potential UNID satellite:

Integrated still image (click to enlarge):

I cannot 100% exclude that it is a bird, also because objects in LEO mostly would have been in shadow already at this time of the evening and sky direction (relatively low east). The resulting orbit is moreover retrograde (inclination about 127 degrees), which is very rare among satellites.

So maybe it was a bird. It does move very linear (birds usually don't) and doesn't look like other birds I had in view that evening, yet perhaps it was.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Receiving the Dr J. van der Bilt Prize

In 1945, the Royal Dutch Astronomy and Meteorology Association (KNVWS) established the Dr. J. van der Bilt Prize, named after professional astronomer Jan van der Bilt (1876-1962) who was the  NVWS president at that time.

The prize is awarded annually to a member of the KNVWS or one of its working groups, who (as an amateur) has conducted  work of scientific value, or who has seriously contributed to the popularization of astronomy. A list of past recipients (in Dutch) is here.

Last September I got a surprise phone call from the current KNVWS president, Niek de Kort, who informed me that the Van der Bilt Prize committee had decided to award the 2012 Van der Bilt Prize to me. Someone had nominated my name, and the committee chose me out of several nominees. I consider this a great honour!

The nicely calligraphed award certificate
(click to enlarge)

The award is for my work on meteors, asteroids and artificial satellites. I have authored/co-authored several peer-reviewed publications on meteors, the result of participation in a number of scientific research expeditions during a.o. the Perseids, Leonids, and alpha Monocerotids of 1992-2002 and recently the Draconids of 2011. I do astrometry on asteroids, and discovered several new asteroids (including a NEA). And my work on artificial satellites  is probably known to the reader as it is the main subject of this blog.

Yesterday (10 November 2012), on the Astrodag ("Astro Day") of the KNVWS in Goirle, the Prize was officially handed to me by KNVWS secretary Jan de Boer (see photograph below):

The Prize comes with a nicely calligraphed certificate (see first image in this post), listing the reasons for the award and then summing it up in an alliterating one-liner.

So it reads: "awarded because of his great merit as an observer of meteors, of asteroids and of satellites".

The alliterating one-liner following this is difficult to properly translate, but roughly translates to: "Discoverer of asteroids: at home among the gravel of the solar system" (the original in Dutch alliterates: "Thuis in het gruis van het zonnestelsel"), this referring to the central line of my interest: small solar system bodies.

The two little miniatures on the certificate show a golden meteor shooting across the starry sky, and a (slightly anthropomorph) asteroid.

Just like the naming of asteroid (183294) Langbroek after me a few years ago, I consider this award to be a great honour.

Below are some more pictures of the award ceremony. As is customary, I did a 45-minute talk following the acceptance of the award, my talk being titled "Hunting Asteroids".

(the pictures of the ceremony in this post were made by Robert Haas)

(click images to enlarge)

flowers for my girlfriend as well 

Receiving congratulations and some very kind words from astronomy Prof. emeritus Hugo van Woerden, one of the award committee members

 Receiving congratulations from BWGS Satellite Workgroup chair Bram Dorreman

Starting my lecture on Asteroids