Thursday, 30 June 2016

USA 224 recovered: an update of the KH-11 constellation

Russell Eberst in Scotland has recovered the noon-plane KH-11 ADVANCED CRYSTAL/"Keyhole" optical reconnaissance satellite USA 224 (2011-002A) this week. The recovery happened relatively late (in 2015 it was recovered 2 months earlier).

This recovery means that, after the preliminary update last March, I can provide my periodic update on the orbits of the KH-11 constellation based on timely orbital data.

In various previous post to this blog, I outlined how the KH-11 constellation consists of two primary orbital planes, the primary East and West planes; and originally two, now one, secondary orbital plane(s). Of the latter secondary planes, only one, the secondary West plane, is left after the de-orbit of USA 161 late 2014.

The past decade or so, the primary planes have been 48-49 degrees apart in RAAN. That is still the case: USA 224 and USA 245, the primary East and West plane KH-11's, are currently 49 degrees apart in RAAN.

The secondary planes used to be either 10 or 20 degrees from the corresponding primary plane in RAAN, but since mid-2014 the secondary West plane (currently USA 186) has moved further out, to 24 degrees West of the primary orbital plane.

As I have outlined before on this blog, the secondary plane(s) differ in orbital altitudes from the primary planes. The current configuration:

         perigee   apogee    l time   repeat
Sat        km        km      d node   (days)   plane
USA 186    261       454     08:05      3      secondary W
USA 224    262      1007     12:58      4      primary E
USA 245    266      1000     09:42      4      primary W

Given are the apogee and perigee altitudes of the satellites, the average local time they pass through their descending node (an indication of around what time they pass a given area - all satellites in the constellation are sun-synchronous, i.e. they pass  at a similar solar elevation each day), the repeat interval of the ground track in days, and the plane they orbit in.

What can be seen is that the secondary plane satellite, USA 186, is in a much more circular orbit with a much lower apogee (454 km), compared to the two primary satellites (~1000 km). Perigee altitudes of all three satellites are similar. I have speculated on the reason for this apogee difference of the secondary plane satellite at the end of a previous post.

The West plane satellites, USA 186 and USA 245, make morning passes, about 1h45m after each other. The East plane satellite, USA 224, makes passes about an hour after local noon.

The current orbital configuration has been more or less stable since mid-2014 (or more exactly, since USA 161 was de-orbitted late 2014).

Monday, 27 June 2016

Mentor 7 (NROL-37) stopped drifting at 102.6 E

Mentor 7 on 25 June 2016 
image (c) Paul Camilleri, used with permission
click to enlarge

On June 11, 2016, the National Reconnaisance Office (NRO) launched NROL-37: a new Mentor (Advanced ORION) SIGINT satellite, Mentor 7 (2016-036A). Paul Camilleri in Warners Bay, Australia, located it in orbit three days later, on June 14 (see a previous post).

At that time, it was in a semi-geosynchonous, 7.5 degree inclined drift orbit, and drifting westwards in longitude at a rate of ~0.28 degrees/day (see a previous post), after initial orbit insertion near longitude~105 E.

New observations by Paul Camilleri on June 24 and 25 show that this drift has stopped. The satellite is now geosynchronous in a stable, 7.5 degree inclined position at longitude 102.6 E. It arrived there on June 19th, after a 7-day drift.

click map to enlarge

This is almost certainly a temporary check-out position. In this location the satellite is positioned at 45 degrees elevation (i.e. halfway between zenith and horizon) for the Pine Gap Joint Defense Facility in central Australia, one of the primary ground stations for US SIGINT satellites:

Mentor 7: position as seen from Pine Gap
click to enlarge

It will probably remain here for a few weeks or a few months, and then be moved to an operational location, which I suspect will be near longitude 80 E.

Current elements:

Mentor 7
1 41584U 16036A   16177.93784503 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    01
2 41584   7.5070 353.7330 0045273  39.1128 322.1888  1.00270000    04

Friday, 24 June 2016

MUOS 5 GTO insertion and Centaur fuel dump imaged from Australia

click to enlarge
image (c) Paul Camilleri - used with permission

The spectacular image above was kindly made available to me by Paul Camilleri from Warners Bay in Australia. Taken around 18:03 UT using a 180 mm lens, it shows the just launched MUOS 5 satellite and the associated Centaur upper stage: the latter is venting fuel creating a "comet-like" cloud.

The image was made some 40 minutes after MUOS 5 separated from the Centaur stage (separation happened at ~17:23 UT). The two objects were at an altitude of ~30 000 km at that time, in a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Following separation, the Centaur upper stage had made a Collision and Contamination Avoidance Manoeuvre (CCAM) and next started to dump exces fuel in order to reduce the risk of later on-orbit explosions. This fuel-venting causes the comet-like cloud. MUOS 5 itself is visible as a small trail just under the Centaur and its fuel cloud.

Two other classified objects are, by chance, visible in the image as well: Milstar 4 and USA 155. Like MUOS 5, Milstar 4 is a military communications satellite: USA 155 is an SDS data relay satellite.

MUOS 5 was launched today at 14:30 UT (24 June 2016) from Cape Canaveral, using an Atlas V rocket with a Centaur upper stage. For a timeline and details, see here.

Over the next couple of days, MUOS 5 will use its own engines to make a series of orbit raising manoeuvres, followed by an orbit circularization to bring it in a ~5-degree inclined Geosynchronous orbit. Most likely it will initially be placed in a check-out position near longitude 172 W: I observed MUOS 4 in this position last year.

After 5 months or so, when check-out is completed, it will next be moved to longitude 72 E, where it will be parked as an on-orbit spare in the MUOS constellation (see also my earlier post on MUOS 4 here).

MUOS 5 is the fifth satellite in the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) system of Geosynchronous narrowband communication satellites. The first MUOS satellite was launched in 2012. This system of military COMSAT is to provide communication facilities to 'mobile users': i.e. military personel in non-fixed positions such as ships, aircraft, tanks and vehicles or on foot. It is a replacement for the aging UFO constellation of COMSAT and will be able to be used by legacy UFO equipment.

The MUOS system now consists of four operational satellites (MUOS 1 to 4) and MUOS 5 as said is to function as an on-orbit spare. According to a publication by Oeting et al. in the Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest 30:2 of 2011, it will be parked at 72 E for this purpose.

I thank Paul Camilleri for permission to feature his splendid image!

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Updated orbit for Mentor 7 (NROL-37 payload)

In my previous post I reported that the geosynchronous payload of June 11th's NROL-37 launch, the SIGINT satellite Mentor 7 (USA 268, 2016-036A) was found on June 14 by Paul Camilleri in Australia.

Paul has communicated new observations from June 15 and 16, extending the observational arc to 2.1 days. I fit the following updated orbit to it:

Mentor 7
1 41584U 16036A   16167.96105997 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    07
2 41584   7.5055 353.7008 0046333  41.2140 319.1375  1.00195548    05

rms 0.004 deg      from 9 obs June 14.70 - June 16.79  (2.09 day arc)

This orbit results in a drift rate of ~0.28 degrees per day in longitude, westwards. If this drift rate does not change in the future, the satellite will reach longitude 80 E (my guess for its eventual operational position) at the end of the first week of September 2016 [update 27 June: but see follow-on post here].

More on Mentor 7 and its recovery (including one of Paul's recovery images) in my previous post.

UPDATE 27 June 2016: Mentor 7 has stopped drifting and is stable at longitude 102.6 E - more on that in this follow-on post.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Mentor 7, the NROL-37 payload, found

Launch of NROL-37 (photo credit: ULA)

On 11 June 2016 at 17:51 UT, after a one-day postponement, the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launched a classified payload from Cape Canaveral under the launch designation NROL-37. It was a launch into geosynchronous orbit using a Delta IV-Heavy rocket.

The NROL-37 payload  has been catalogued under the generic designation USA 268 (2016-036A, 41584). It is widely believed to be a Mentor (Advanced Orion) SIGINT ('eavesdropping') satellite, Mentor 7.

Initial assessments pre-launch indicated a possible orbit insertion of the payload over Southeast Asia. After launch, Paul Camilleri, a novice satellite observer in Australia, was guided by Ted Molczan and me in an attempt to find the payload by means of a dedicated photographic survey.

In the early morning of June 15 (local time -  June 14 in UT), three days after the launch, Paul indeed successfully located the payload! The image below shows one of Paul's initial images, with the NROL-37 payload visible as a bright dot.

Mentor 7 (NROL-37) imaged June 14 by Paul Camilleri in Australia
click to enlarge - photo (c) Paul Camilleri, used with permission

From imagery on June 14 and 15, the following very preliminary orbit was calculated (for the time being, I have fixed a few parameters towards 'round' values here):

Mentor 7
1 41584U 16036A   16166.96303997 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    06
2 41584   7.5000 353.7000 0046000  41.4155 318.9349  1.00200000    04

rms 0.006, from 7 obs, 2016 June 14.70 - June 15.48 UTC

This places the satellite near longitude 104 E, over the Strait of Malacca, around the time of discovery, in a ~7.5 degree inclined near-geosynchronous orbit.

[edit 19 June 2016, 20:15 UT: I have posted an updated orbit in a later post here]

click map to enlarge

While the Mean Motion still remains somewhat ill defined from this short an observational arc, the satellite appears to be slowly drifting westwards, towards its eventual operational position.  My guess (and no more than that) is that it will eventually stop drifting near either 80 E (south of Sri Lanka) or perhaps 10 E (over central Africa). The reason for the initial placement near 104 E is likely that in this position it is initially well placed for the Pine Gap Joint Defense Facility ground station in central Australia (one of two facilities dedicated to NRO SIGINT payloads) during the initial check-out phase.

Mentor (Advanced Orion) satellites are SIGINT satellites: satellites that "listen" for radio signals. They are "the largest satellite[s] in the World", according to a statement by the then NRO director Bruce Carlson in 2010 at the time of the Mentor 5 (NROL-32) launch. There has been some speculation (it seems to be not more than that) that these satellites might have a huge fold-out mesh antenna some 100 meters wide.

Our observations suggest that these satellites indeed appear to be extraordinarily large. They are very bright (brighter than other geosynchronous payloads), typically of magnitude +8. They are the easiest geosynchronous satellites to photograph: a standard 50mm lens with a 10-second exposure will do.

The other six Mentor satellites, launched between 1995 and 2012, currently make up this configuration:

click map to enlarge

I thank Paul Camilleri for permission to use one of his photographs and for his willingnes to undertake the hunt for Mentor 7

 [edit 19 June 2016, 20:15 UT: an update here]