Tuesday, September 29, 2015

OT - the Lunar Eclipse of 28 September 2015 from Leiden

click image to enlarge

Leiden had clear skies during the night of September 27-28, which meant a good view of the total Lunar Eclipse in the early morning of September 28.

For me, this eclipse occurred mostly at rooftop level, with the moon sinking from 34 degrees elevation at first contact with the umbra, to 11 degrees elevation at last contact with the umbra. During mid-totality, at 2:47 UT (4:47 am local time), the moon was at 21 degrees elevation, just disappearing behind the rooftops for me.

After setting up my Celestron C6, I could use the telescope until about 2:40 UT, when the moon disappeared behind the rooftops. I then went to my girlfriend's appartment, which (from the 2nd floor) has a good view Westwards, and continued photography with simpler means during the second half of the eclipse.

click image to enlarge: it is worth it!  See text for details

There I shot a series of images with the Canon EOS 60D and the EF 2.5/50 mm Macro lens on a tripod. 14 of these images, shot in 5-minute intervals, where then stacked to create the image above, which shows the second half of the eclipse from 03:15 UT to 04:20 UT, i.e. from late totality until just before last contact with the umbra. The lens was set at F5, camera on 250 ISO, and exposure times were 4 seconds at the start of the series, and 0.5 seconds at the end. It shows that you don't need a telescope to get nice pictures.

Of course, a telescope does allow for very fine pictures. Below are some results from the first half of the eclipse, taken with my Canon EOS 60D through my Celestron C6 (15 cm F/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain with F6.3 focal reducer):

Moon in penumbra, 01:04 UT, just before first contact with umbra
(1/200 second, 100 ISO) click image to enlarge

Entry in umbra progressing (1/50 second, 100 ISO), 01:30 UT
click image to enlarge

Four minutes before totality (3.2 seconds, 200 ISO), 02:06 UT
click image to enlarge

Totality, 02:32 UT (10 seconds, 800 ISO). Note two stars near top lunar disc
click image to enlarge

This was a rather dark eclipse, to my estimate at the edge of L1/L2 on the Danjon Scale. The best moment for me was just before totality, when the moon sat just above the roof as a dark red-purple globe with a bright crescent on the lower edge: it looked a bit like Mars with a polar cap this way.

And by the way: NO! I refuse to go along with that "Super Blood Moon" nonsense. Puh-Lease!!!!

The "Blood Moon" denomer is actually of very questionable origin. It is not (contrary to what some people seem to think) an old folkloristic name for a Lunar eclipse, but is a denomer coined only a few years ago by two American Christian religious doomsday fanatics, who prophecied that the tetrad (series of four lunar eclipses each six months apart) starting with the eclipse of April 15, 2014 and ending with this eclipse of September 28, 2015, were a sign of the End of Times being near. They got their inspiration for this name from a sentence in the Bible, in the Book of Revelations.

Unfortunately, it seems everything in our modern society has to be expressed in ridiculous hyperbole nowadays. Ad to that media ignorant of the origin of the denomer "Blood Moon" with some religious crackpots, and you end up with horrible abominations like "Super Blood Moon" for what in essence was a nice and impressive, but in itself not particularly distinctive or rare Lunar eclipse...

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Friday, September 25, 2015

MUOS 4 at its 172 W check-out location

MiTEx 1 on 16 September 2015
(click image to enlarge)

On September 16, I was using the Warrumbungle 0.51-m telescope in Australia to track MiTEx. Indeed, MiTEx 1 (2006-024A) was imaged as a faint object close to the expected location (image above).

But about 5 degrees Northeast of MiTEx 1, I imaged another, very bright object (see image below) at approximately 172 W. It was too bright to be MiTEx 2 and didn't fit any known object. This UNID turned out to be the newly launched classified military COMSAT, MUOS 4 (2015-044A).

MUOS 4 on 16 September 2015
(click image to enlarge)

MUOS 4 was launched from Cape Canaveral with an Atlas V rocket two weeks earlier, on 2 September 2015. It is the fourth satellite in the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) system of Geosynchronous narrowband communication satellites, the first of which 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.

The MUOS system is to consist of four operational satellites and one spare fifth satellite. According to a publication by Oeting et al. in the Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest 30:2 of 2011, the operational satellites will be placed in slots at longitudes:

15.5 W
100 W
177 W
75 E

...while the spare satellite (MUOS 5, to be launched) will be placed at longitude 72 E. Compare this to the actual locations of the MUOS satellites according to our tracking:

MUOS constellation, from Oeting et al. 2011
(click image to enlarge)

Current locations of MUOS satellites,
based on amateur tracking:
MUOS 1   2012-09A       177 W  Pacific
MUOS 2   2013-036A      100 W  CONUS
MUOS 3   2015-002A     15.8 W  Atlantic

MUOS 4   2015-044A      172 W  (check-out)

(click map to enlarge)

The map and table above show the current locations of MUOS 1, 2 and 3 (from Mike McCant's INTTLES file). The positions agree well with the slots depicted in the mentioned publication.

(and yeah: if you think it is a tad silly that these orbits are 'classified' while the intended orbit slots have been published in a publicly available publication, you are of course right).

The yellow dots in the map are ground facilities related to the MUOS system. The MUOS constellation is designed such that each satellite has at least two Radio Acces Facilities (RAF) in range.

MUOS 4 imaged on 24 September 2015

My additional observations on September 24 (see image above) show that MUOS 4 is stationary at 172 W, as depicted in the map below. An approximate orbit for the satellite can be found here.

(click map to enlarge)

As MUOS 4 appears intended for an operational slot at longitude 75 E over the Indian Ocean (red dot in the map above), this means the current location at 172 W is not the intended operational longitude. Rather, it is a temporary initial check-out location. Once check-out is completed (and this might take several weeks), it will probably be moved to longitude 75 E.

(click images to enlarge)

This check-out position at 172 W has been used for the MUOS satellites before, according to Ted Molczan (priv.com). It is in range of three MUOS ground facilities: two Radio Acces Facilities (RAF) at Wahiawa in Hawaii and (although barely) Geraldton in Australia, and the primary Satellite Control Facility (SCF) in Pt. Mugu, California.

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Monday, September 21, 2015

The slow, changing tumble of the USA 144 (Misty 2) decoy

The USA 144 Decoy (1999-028C)
(click image to enlarge)

Yesterday evening I did some observations on the two evening KH-11 Keyholes (USA 186 and USA 245). Following that, I targeted the USA 144 decoy (1999-028C), an enigmatic object from the launch of the stealth satellite Misty 2 in 1999.

Three classified objects and one unclassified: the USA 144 Decoy, NOSS 3-4 A & C,
and an old rocket booster with CAMEO attached
(click image to enlarge)

At left in the image above is a double trail of the classified NOSS 3-4 duo (2007-027 A & C). In the middle is an old Delta 1 rocket booster (78-098B) with CAMEO on top, an earth magnetosphere experiment from 1978. At right, the shortest trail, is the enigmatic classified object we call the USA 144 Decoy.

I have written about this enigmatic object before. It is a bright object in a high 2665 x 3155 km orbit originating from the Misty 2 Stealth satellite launch in 1999.

(click image to enlarge)

From a study of its orbital behaviour, Ted Molczan found that the orbital decay of this object is notably influenced by Solar Radiation Pressure (SRP). This suggests an object that is very "light" relative to its size, i.e. an object with a large area-to-mass ratio. This does not fit a normal payload, so we suspect that this relatively bright object might have been a decoy to attract attention away from the real, stealth payload.

The USA 144 Decoy is slowly tumbling, resulting in a clear brightness variation. Ted already noted that the period of this variation changes over time, sometimes increasing, sometimes decreasing. This is in line with the tumbling behaviour of other known objects subject to SRP (like fragments of the PAGEOS balloon satellites).

click diagram to enlarge

I took a series of images between 20:19:42 UT and 20:26:12 UT (20 Sep 2015) documenting the brightness variability. The curve fits a peak-to-peak period of about 50.5 ± 0.5 seconds (see diagram above). There is clearly much variation in amplitude peak-to-peak.

The period found, is shorter than the periods found during my earlier determinations in 2009 and 2010, a summary of which is given below:

20 Sep 2015:    50.5 seconds (this post)
5 Sep 2010:     60 seconds   (see here)
20 Jul 2010:    61 seconds   (see here)
2-9 Mar 2010:   88 seconds   (unpublished)
19 Nov 2009:    62 seconds   (see here)
25-27 Aug 2009: 71 seconds   (see here)

This variation of the period over time is in line with expectations for an SRP-influenced object like this.

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Observing Geostationary satellites from Indonesia

(click images to enlarge)

In July-August this year I visited Indonesia, travelling around on the island of Sulawesi and briefly stopping over on Bali on the way back to the Netherlands. It was a special trip, in which I searched for and found the house where my grandparents and father once lived, visited archaeological sites, and in general got  to see wonderful things and got to meet wonderful people.

One of the wonderful things was the night sky - especially at the Togian islands between North and central Sulawesi. A splendid Milky-Way from horizon to horizon (image above), the zodiacal light (image below), and my first good view of the Southern Cross (second image below).

During the stop-over on Bali, I did some limited satellite observations. Geostationary objects that are never visible from the Netherlands and which I normally only get to image using a 'remote' telescope, were the focus.

Unfortunately, the lens I had intended for that purpose, my EF 2.8/100 mm Macro USM, turned out to have been damaged during the trip, to the point that it had become optically clearly faulty. I therefore had to use a decidedly less suited lens, my EF 4.0-5.6/70-300 mm telezoom. As a result, only the brightest geostationary objects did register.

Among the objects that did register were the SDS satellites USA 227 (2011-011A) and USA 155 (2000-080A), the Mentor 2 r/b (1998-029B), and two objects that initially were UNIDS although one of them could later be identified.

The first one was a bright object just north of USA 155, which I earlier had also imaged using a 'remote' telescope. It almost certainly is the communication satellite Milstar 4.

The second UNID was an object in an 7.8 degree inclined GTO  orbit that was clearly trailing in the 30 second exposures (see image below). It does not match any known object. Astrometry and a very approximate orbit for this object are here.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The tumble periodicity of the Chang'e 3 upper stage (2013-070B) revisited

click image to enlarge

Brightness variation due to tumbling of the Chang'e 3 upper stage (2013-070B)
stack of 15 images taken with the 0.51-m telescope of MPC Q65 Warrumbungle
11 September 2015

I have written before on this blog about tracking very distant space debris: the CZ-3C upper stages of the Chinese Lunar missions Chang'e 2 and Chang'e 3, which move in chaotic trans-Lunar orbits. I have embarked on a long-term project to follow these objects.

Apart from positions to keep their orbits up to date, these observations also provide information about the tumbling behaviour of these objects. Both objects have a periodic variation in brightness: a very rapid one for 2010-050B, the Chang'e 2 upper stage, and a slow one for 2013-070B, the Chang'e 3 upper stage.

Earlier, in July 2015, I had established a tumbling periodicity of  ~7 minutes for 2013-070B. I have now been able to refine that value much better, to only a few hundreds of a second.

With the help of Peter Starr from Warrumbungle Observatory (MPC Q65) in Australia and Krisztián Sárneczky from Szeged University's Piszkéstető Observatory (MPC 461) in Hungary, I could obtain two nice series of data the past week. The data were gathered on September 11 (Warrumbungle 0.51-m telescope) and September 14 (Piszkéstető 0.60-m Schmidt telescope).

The first set, taken by Peter from Warrumbungle, is a set of 15 exposures of 30 seconds each, taken in ~1 minute intervals. The image at the top of this post is a stack of these images. The brightness maxima can be clearly seen.

The second set, obtained in twilight by Krisztián from Piszkéstető at the end of a run of the Szeged Asteroid Survey, is a set of 18 exposures of 3 seconds (!) each, in ~20 second intervals, with a brief pause halfway the series.

Single sinusoid fit to data from Sep 11 (lef) and Sep 14 (right)
click diagram to enlarge

The data allow to fit a sinusoid to both sets simultaniously, and from that get a very accurate periodicity. The double diagram above shows this sinus-fit to the data. It allows to establish a peak-to-peak periodicity of 423.01 ± 0.03 seconds for the tumbling of 2013-070B.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Observing the Fregat upper stage with Galileo 9 and 10 manoeuvering into transfer orbit, just 22 minutes after launch

Fregat upper stage with Galileo 9 and 10 after shadow exit, 11 Sep 2015, 2:30:12 UTC
click image to enlarge

Last night (11 Sep 2015) at 2:08:10 UT, ESA and Roskosmos launched a Soyuz from Kourou, French Guyana, with the new navigation satellites Galileo 9 and 10. The payloads are intended for a circular MEO orbit at an altitude of about 23 522 km

Cees Bassa alerted observers in Europe to the fact that the Fregat upper stage (with payloads still attached) would be visible over Europe during it's initial orbit insertion burn, exiting Earth shadow near 02:30 UT at an altitude of about 400 km altitude while cruising over Germany/Denmark. Engine cut-off for this stage of the launch would be 2 minutes later near 02:31:40 UT

This burn brought the Fregat stage and payloads in a ballistic transfer trajectory. A second burn about 3.5 hours after launch then inserted the stage and payloads in a circular orbit, upon which the payloads separated and the upper stage was de-orbitted.

Both Cees and I managed to observe the Fregat near 02:30 UT. This was about 22 minutes after the launch. Cees observed from Drente in the Northeast of the Netherlands(closer to the trajectory and with better observing conditions), while I observed from Cronesteyn Polder at the edge of Leiden in the West of the Netherlands.

Observing conditions were mediocre at my location: the sky was hazy, and light pollution a problem at lower elevations (it can be seen as an orange glow in the image above).

After exiting Earth shadow near 02:30:00 UT at about 45 degrees elevation in Ursa major, the Fregat stage was easily seen by the naked eye as an object of magnitude +2.

Above is one of my images, a 4-second exposure (Canon EOS 60D, EF 2.5/50mm lens, 800 ISO) starting at 02:30:12 UT.

Descending towards the Northeastern horizon the object became fainter, until I lost it in the light pollution and haze about a minute later.

Cees managed to image a developing hazy envelope around the trail low above the horizon (when it was already invisible to me), which is related to engine shut-down near 02:31:40 UT.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Rapid tumbling of the Chang'e 2 r/b (2010-050B) and Rollercoaster orbital evolution

(click image to enlarge)

Recently, I have posted several times about my tracking of two extremely remote pieces of space junk: 2010-050B and 2013-070B, the CZ-3C upper stages of the Chinese Chang'e 2 and 3 Lunar missions. These orbit in orbits with (currently) perigee just within, and apogee beyond one Lunar distance, i.e. a trans-Lunar orbit.

In a recent post I discussed the tumbling behaviour of 2013-070B, the Chang'e 3 booster. At that time, I stated that by contrast the Chang'e 2 booster, 2010-050B, appears steady.

I can now say that is not true: 2010-050B is tumbling too. And very rapidly, which is why I didn't notice it earlier.

My earlier imaging sessions were done while 2010-050B was at well over one Lunar distance (beyond 400 000 km), towards its apogee. On July 18th I imaged it from MPC Q65 Warrumbungle while it was only a few hours from its perigee, at a distance of 280 000 km (about three quarter of a Lunar Distance), moving at 47" per minute. The result is a much longer trail on the image than in earlier imaging sessions.

Rather than being a trail, suddenly the trail is resolved in a series of dots: typically three (and in one image two) per 30 second exposure. See the image in the top of this post. The reason this was not visible during earlier imaging sessions, was that the trail was so short (a  few arcsecs) when imaging the object at larger distance, that the dots merge into one trail.

The 3 dots per image, and once two dots, indicate a flash period of ~15 seconds, testifying to a rapid tumble. This is close to the period determined by Peter Birthwhistle (MPC J95 Great Shefford) in 2010 shortly after the launch.

I also imaged 2013-070B that night, at a distance of about 479 000 km (1.25 Lunar Distances). This object is tumbling much slower than 2010-050B: the brightness variation in the animated GIF below fits nicely with the 7m 05s flash period determined from June 26 and July 5.

The orbits of 2010-050B and 2013-070B are changing extremely fast, in a chaotic way, notably as a result of Lunar perturbations. As you can see in the table that is part of my SeeSat-List post here, the apogee of the 2010-050B orbit for example changed from about 550 000 km to about 446 000 km between May 7 and July 18. The perigee changed from about 350 000 km to about 280 000 km, i.e. from about 1 Lunar Distance to about 0.73 Lunar Distance, during that same period. The orbital period was shortened by almost 10 days.

While the apogee and perigee distances are currently decreasing for this object, a new Lunar perturbation might make them increase again in the future. The orbital inclination also widely varies over time. Such changes are very sudden, especially in connection to close Lunar encounters. These objects are on a true Rollercoaster ride through the Earth-Moon system.

As it turns out, this kind of chaotic orbit is very difficult to model, even over relatively short time scales. Attempts using GMAT show that very small variations in the determined orbit yield very different outcomes within only a few years. Variations in the order of a few hundred meters (!) in apogee and perigee will already do it, i.e. variations well within the uncertainties in the determined orbital parameters.

GMAT-simulated chaotic orbital evolution of 2010-050B over a 1.5 year period. Grey is the Moon orbit, red is 2010-050B orbit, blue grid is earth equatorial plane. In reality, the orbital evolution might be different as small variations in initial conditions (see text) yield large differences after 1.5 years.

So we have to observe these objects to see how their orbits evolve in the future. And this is what I will do: keep following them, over the coming years.

Basically, three eventual future fates are possible for these objects: one is eventual ejection into a Heliocentric orbit (so it will leave the Earth-Moon system); two is an eventual Earth impact (i.e. a decay in the Earth atmosphere); and three is an impact on the moon.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

2013-070B (Chang'e 3 r/b): a tumbling rocket stage at one Lunar distance

In two posts in May (here and here) I reported on my telescopic observations of 2010-050B, the upper stage of the Chinese Chang'e 2 Lunar mission in a trans-Lunar orbit.

 photo 2013_070B_Change3rb_5jul2015_Q65_ANIM_zpstn1oe22g.gif

This is not the only one of these objects observable (and sometimes mistaken for a Near Earth Asteroid, as 2010-050B in May was). The animated GIF above, shows you 2013-070B, the upper stage of the Chang'e 3 Lunar mission, imaged on July 5th using the 0.51-meter telescope of MPC Q65 Warrumbungle in Australia. It was at a distance of about 336000 km, roughly one Lunar distance, at that time

Unlike 2010-050B, which is stable in brightness, this objects is clearly tumbling and shows a marked periodic brightness variation as a result. There is a clear saw-tooth pattern with a steep ascending slope and more shallow descending slope, an amplitude of ~2.5 magnitudes and a period of about 420-425 seconds (or ~7 minutes).

(click diagram to enlarge)

Observations of the same object from June 26 can be fitted to a very similar 7 minute period and ~2.5 magnitude amplitude, but with the descending instead of the ascending slope steeper and the ascending slope more shallow, the reverse of the July 5 observations.

The July 5 observations combined with the June 26 observations result in the following orbit for 2013-050B:

Perigee 2015 Jul 8.981227 +/- 0.0143 TT = 23:32:58 (JD 2457212.481227)
Epoch 2015 Jul 6.0 TT = JDT 2457209.5 
M 298.03225 +/- 0.15 
n 20.78598673 +/- 0.0509 

a 282763.321 +/- 462 km
e 0.7243890 +/- 0.00115 
Incl. 23.49157 +/- 0.0006 deg
Peri. 40.10428 +/- 0.055 deg
Node 141.35795 +/- 0.0017 deg
q 77932.6554 +/- 449 km   Q 487593.987 +/- 472 km
P 17.32d

24 of 29 observations 2015 June 26-July 5; mean residual 0".577. 

Chang'e 3 rb
1 00000U         15187.00000000  .00000000 00000-0 00000-0 0 05
2 00000 23.4899 141.5720 7239912 39.8984 298.3594 0.05732427 01 

The orbit is more eccentric and has a smaller semi-major axis (and as a result, a perigee closer to Earth) and smaller orbital inclination than that of 2010-050B.

2013-070B and 2010-050B move in chaotic orbits: frequent close encounters with the Moon create sudden, drastic changes in eccentricity, inclination, perigee and apogee. It is possible that both objects will be ejected out of the Earth-Moon system in the future, into a Heliocentric orbit.

Below are the orbits for both objects as of July 6, 2015:

(click to enlarge images)

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

[updated] Aurora hunter images the last moments of the AVUM (4th stage) from the Sentinel-2A launch

image (c) David Murr, used with permission

On June 23 at 01:51:58 UT, ESA launched a Vega rocket with the Sentinel-2A satellite from Kourou, French Guyana.

About two hours later, US astrophotographer David Murr was watching the sky as part of an aurora watch in Louisa, Virginia. Just after  he had set up, he saw and imaged a "cloudy blob" moving from SE to NW through Ursa major (just above the trees in the image):

After Murr's tweet and image were brough to my attention through a retweet by David Dickinson, I could quickly confirm this was related to the Sentinel-2A launch two hours earlier.

What is visible is probably fuel venting [but: see update below: it could actually be gasses from the actual last engine burn] by AVUM, the Attitude and Vernier Upper Module that assists in putting the payload into its intended orbit after separation from the third stage. The AVUM has liquid fuel engines (the Zefiro third stage has solid fuel engines) and did a final burn, aiming at de-orbiting it lowering its orbit, just 10 minutes before the observation (see timeline here).

The map above shows the predicted track for Murr's Virginia location for Sentinel-2A and the Sentinel Zefiro 3rd stage : it matches the sky track and direction of movement of  the "fuzzy blob" on his image extremely well. There is a small time difference of only a few minutes, but all taken it is very clear this object was connected to the Sentinel-2A launch (the plot is based on orbital elements for the Vega 3rd stage and Sentinel-2A from some hours later: there are no orbital elements for the AVUM).

Murr was not the only one spotting and photographing the object: more photographs by several other US observers are here.

UPDATE 20:35 UT: Jim Cook from Germantown, Maryland, describes what appears to be the actual last burn of AVUM in a post on the Seesat list. Putting all information together, I have come to the conclusion that the fuzzy cloud is not so much a fuel vent, but gasses from the actual AVUM burn.
Also: the press kit talks about a "de-orbit burn" for AVUM, but as AVUM has been catalogued as still in orbit (as in previous cases), it is a burn to lower the orbit rather than a true de-orbit burn.

(many thanks to David Murr for his permission to feature his photograph)

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tracking MiTEx 1

MiTEx 1, 18 May 2015 (click to enlarge)

Over the years, the USA has been experimenting with satellites intended for close-range inspection of other satellites at geostationary altitudes.

The first one was the highly secret Prowler (1990-097E), clandestinely launched on Space Shuttle mission STS-38 in 1990. Two other ones were launched less covertly, though their orbits were and are classified: the experimental MiTEx satellites, MiTEx 1 and MiTEx 2 (2006-024A and B), brainchilds of DARPA, launched from Cape Canaveral in June 2006.

Speculation on the reason for their development can be found here. What we do know is that early 2009, two-and-a-half years after their launch, both MiTEx satellites were used to inspect the malfunctioned DSP-23 satellite. This was actually observed by amateur trackers Greg Roberts and Peter Wakelin.

MiTEx is an acronym that stands for Micro-satellite Technology Experiment.They are small objects, each weighing about 225 kg. While some sources (similar statements also here) have tauted that "ground-based detection via visual observation or radar is extremely difficult if not impossible" for these small objects at such a large distance, matter of fact is that amateurs (including me) actually track these objects, albeit infrequently.

The image in the top of this post shows MiTEx 1 (2006-024A) imaged on May 18, 2015, using the 0.51-m telescope of Warrumbungle Obs. in Australia. The satellite was at a low sky elevation.

I also imaged it two days earlier, on May 16, and captured it briefly flaring at that time (the trail is leaving the FOV of the CCD camera at left in this image):

MiTEx 1 is currently located in a disposal orbit at an orbital altitude just above that of operational geostationary satellites. It is drifting Westwards at a rate of about 5-6 degrees per day. During my May 16 and May 18 observations, it was moving westwards over the mid-Pacific south of Hawaii, as shown on the map below. The map also shows the drift path over the next two weeks, until the satellite's approximate position for June 1. The "wobble" in the path is the daily analema it makes due to the slight inclination of its orbit. Footprint shown is for May 18.

(click map to enlarge)

Where the MiTEx 1 sistership  MiTEx 2 (2006-024B) currently is, is less certain: my attempts to recover it near its expected position on May 16 and May 18 based on a 20-day old elset failed so far.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

[UPDATED] Why the Emergency Asteroid Defense Project (EADP) will not fly, imho

[editted and expanded May 15, 2015, to reflect on the content of the legal report commissioned by EADP. Edits and expansions are in italics between square parenthesis, to differentiate them from the original first version published]

The danger of an Asteroid impact is a real threat. To that, everybody agrees. It is however also (and I am not alone in stating this) a threat that has been, and is, overhyped by some.

Lately, a number of publicly very vocal groups have jumped on the bandwagon of  'asteroid defense'. Within the community of asteroid researchers (of which I am very modestly a member -  I search for and have actually discovered Near Earth Asteroids), some of these groups raise eyebrows and generate a somewhat uneasy feeling. Several people in our small community feel that some of these groups, often consisting of people considered outsiders, hijack the issue and overhype a threat in a way that is detrimental to the real issues and complexities involved.

One of the newest initiatives in this game is the Emergency Asteroid Defense Project (EADP). EADP wants to rescue us from a potential asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Note: there isn't such an asteroid in the picture yet.

On their website, EADP presents itself as a Denmark-based NGO that wants to develop and build an asteroid defense system for this purpose. The defense system EADP wants to build consists of two parts:

(1) a kinetic impactor, that will create an impact crater on the target asteroid;

(2) a small nuclear bomb that will next be steered into this crater and detonated, shattering the asteroid into smaller pieces.

Sounds feasible right?

EADP has just created a lot of publicity by starting a crowd funding initiative on Indie-gogo to jump-start their plans. They aim to raise money for a feasibility study and then launch their first test mission as early as 2017.

Mind you: to succinctly make clear what they propose, they propose to launch a nuclear bomb and detonate it on another celestial body. Or at least: develop the technology for it.

Now, IANASL (I Am Not A Space Lawyer). But apart from the worry that it is a private enterprise rather than a (consortium of) Nation States or the UN undertaking this: in my humble opinion, this plan runs foul of at least two international treaties, in a way that will not be easy to resolve and should not be glossed over.

EADP so far appears to do however . You should realize this before you toss your money to EADP.

[note added 15 May 2015: there is actual a legal report on their website - not their Indiegogo page - which is a bit buried, addressing these issues. From the contents of this report and its major recommendations - especially the first one -, it is clear that the issues raised should not be neglected. This is important for a crowd funding campaign, as this is information about the feasibility of the project and attached problems that potential backers need to know in order to decide whether to back the initiative. This report should have been a primary part of their Indiegogo appeal page]

For the plans of EADP to become reality, they need to:

(1) have c.q. develop a nuclear explosion device (i.e. a nuclear weapon);

(2) develop a kinetic impact weapon;

(3) find someone willing to launch these.

With regard to point (3), on their website EADP mentions the US commercial launch corporation SpaceX as an option. I have my doubts about their time-plan however: 2017 seems very soon to commission a launch. Building and launching rockets takes time [let alone tackling the political and licensing issues]. There are moreover other problems to employing SpaceX, discussed below.

Kinetic impact missions are not new. The technology for this already exists. Witness for example NASA's Deep Impact mission and LCROSS mission.

The problematic aspect is the nuclear payload that is employed next. And again, the technology is not what is most problematic here. The real problems are geopolitical.

EADP is Denmark-based, and they are an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization, i.e. a private enterprise of citizens). Denmark as a country itself has no nuclear weapon capability - and it is very doubtful that a sane government would put that capability at the hands of an NGO anyway, would they have it. Denmark also currently doesn't have their own space launch capability (but they do take part in ESA, which has). So they would be dependent on foreign countries for a launch capability (e.g. the US SpaceX, or ESA as a European organization, or Roskosmos in Russia, JAXA in Japan or perhaps the Chinese), and EADP would either have to develop/build the nuclear device themselves (but: see below), or obtain it from a country that does have a nuclear capability.

Here, they face their first problem: the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The nuclear powers US, UK, France, Russia and China all signed this treaty. They would violate this treaty would they help EADP to a nuclear explosive device. They would also violate it by simply providing the technological aid for it (i.e. helping to develop it).

Likewise, given that Denmark - although not possessing a nuclear capability on its own -  is a signatory to the treaty as well, the Danish government can not allow EADP to develop a nuclear explosive device themselves, as that again would breach the treaty they signed. 

[note added 15 May 2015: while the legal report commissioned by EADP discusses the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTB), not a word is being said about the NPT).

Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea also possess The Bomb and did not sign the treaty. Yet, it is highly doubtful they will openly share their technology with EADP. And if they would, they would get in severe trouble with the other nuclear powers. Handing your nuclear technology to private organizations in another country is the kind of thing that starts a war, as it might lead to nuclear technology falling into the wrong hands. The USA has invaded and bombed countries for less.

Moreover, EADP would still get in trouble with the fact that Denmark, the country in which they are based, has signed the treaty. Note that EADP need not actually build the actual device, for this to be problematic.

So there you have one problem with the plans of EADP.

But as if that is not enough, there is a second problem: the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of the United Nations (also known as the 'Outer Space Treaty').

This treaty has been signed by many countries, including Denmark and the United States. It regulates what can and can't be done in Outer Space and on celestial bodies other than Earth.You can find the full text of this treaty here. Important to realize, given that Denmark signed the treaty and EADP is a Danish-based NGO, is that the treaty unequivocally states that:

"States bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, whether carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities"

In other words: EADP, as a Denmark-based NGO, cannot do as they wish: they are bound by the treaty signed by the Danish government. Even if EADP would outsource the nuclear device and/or the launch to another country, Denmark (plus the other countries involved in the launch) is responsible. Basically, this means that under the Outer Space Treaty, they can't allow it (just like they can't allow it under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Of relevance are also provisions 2 and 3 of article III of the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies that is part of the Outer Space Treaty. These state that (and note that while the texts below talks about the Moon, the preamble to these clauses makes clear it concerns not only the Moon but all other celestial bodies other than Earth, i.e. including asteroids):

States Parties shall not place in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the Moon objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or place or use such weapons on or in the Moon.
The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on the Moon shall be forbidden

In other words: launching, let alone detonating, a nuclear explosive device to and on another celestial body (like an asteroid) is simply forbidden. In fact, I think Space Lawyers could get into a real heated argument whether testing with a dummy payload already breaches this clause of the Outer Space Treaty, as a test with a dummy load is still a test, i.e. it relates to the 'testing of any type of weapon' in the clause above. [Von der Dunk, legal advisor to EADP, thinks it is not].

These are questions that, in an international diplomatic environment, therefore should not be taken lightly (and on which different countries and different lawyers might take different viewpoints).

[Von der Dunk basically says the same in his report: at various points in the report it is stressed that "in view of the geopolitical sensitivities" the EADP initiative requires a firm open discussion on these points from a  very early stage onwards. i.e.: that these geopolitical sensitivities should not be underestimated (which is exactly the main point which I argue here!). This is also the first of the main conclusions at the end of the report (p. 32): "It would be recommended for the EADP to:  * Address from an early stage onwards and in a continuing fashion the risk of ‘political fall-out’ outside the United States which EADP missions might give rise to"]

Point is: while it would be possible that countries united in the United Nations would, in the context of the United Nations Assembly, perhaps lift these provisions in the case of a real, imminent asteroid impact danger (but: don't put up your hopes high, folks!), there is imho no way a private enterprise like EADP would get this off without such a real, imminent danger. [again, Von der Dunk appears to actually  agree on this in his report: lifting of certain treaties is seen as feasible by him in case of an "emergency situation", i.e. a real imminent threath]. It is highly, highly unlikely that they would get any country to cooperate with a test mission for this purpose (which is what they are fundraising for) as, even with a dummy load, this basically still is a weapons test in Space (or at least could be seen as this by third parties) and hence diplomatically a very sensitive issue.

Now, if you pose this case to space lawyers, they will tell you that the wording of the Outer Space Treaty is ambiguous. There is also the question, whether a nuclear explosive device to blow up an asteroid should be regarded as a weapon. There is discussion possible about that [e.g. Von der Dunk thinks it isn't necessarily so. ]. But that is not the point. Or rather: it is.

Countries tend to be suspicious of each other's intentions when doing outlandish things like this. Some countries might see it as a covert military space weapons test. Remember, for example, how the shootdown of the USA 193 satellite (an imminent [artificial] impact threath from earth orbit according to the US government) was and is widely regarded and criticized as a covert ASAT test by other countries. The USA itself has expressed significant worries about recent Chinese activities in both near and deep space (including experiments the Chinese themselves present as being purely "scientific") which it considers as covert Space Weapon tests. The same is true for US and other countries' concerns about the true intentions behind the North Korean and Iranian space programs.

This gives you an idea about how sensitive this all is. Strapping a nuclear load (even if it is a dummy) onto a rocket capable of reaching and leaving Earth orbit, basically makes it an ICBM test. EADP is therefore seeking to develop technology that by all means could be considered ICBM technology by some countries. It is clear, that international arms treaties and the NPT get relevant here. Thinking they do not, is irrealistic.

EADP mentions SpaceX. Note that SpaceX, as a US company, is bound by the treaties the USA signed. They cannot launch a nuclear device (or even a dummy test load of such a device) for EADP without the US Government's approval, and the US Government in principle cannot do this without approval of the international community (represented by the United Nations) as they would otherwise breach the Outer Space Treaty. I also doubt that the US government would be okay with a private US company launching a technology test that ultimately includes a nuclear explosive device developed by a private entity in another country. This is stuff where ITAR (the International Traffic in Arms Regulations) is potentially relevant, and the US Government has been a pain in the neck with respect to ITAR issues even to organizations like NASA.

These are things that, in the face of international geopolitic realities, should not be glossed over lightly. You should not think you can just happily build and test technology for a kinetic and nuclear impact device, expect another country to launch it for you, and think other countries will be okay with that and believe Denmark is out to Save the World. It just doesn't work that way. Not even for Denmark, as much as I love that country myself.

Note that the point also isn't whether you actually build and design the nuclear device. EADP is now (on twitter, after critical questions) stressing that they don't want to test the nuclear device but leave that to "specialists"They emphasize that they "must stress that handling nukes is not our job but the government's" (they don't say which government, by the way). They also said that "we will not be the decision makers but merely the providers and the fundraisers for the technology".

But, besides that it is odd to simply waive away testing the most crucial part of the proposed mission and technology, it is besides the point that they say they only develop, not actually build a nuclear device. Developing the technology meant to bring a nuclear explosive device into space, already is something that is (or should be) reason for concern.

This brings us to the real issue at hand. This issue is not whether some treaties are outdated and are at odds with reality and a hindrance to legitimate activities in space (they are). This is not about whether we should or should not try to do something in case we detect an asteroid on a collision course, either.

The real issue is that EADP is fundraising for a project, without having done the necessary diplomatic groundwork.

And that is where the real issue is. This is not an issue of technology. It is not an issue of money. It is a diplomatic issue, and the EADP initiative currently does not solve this. Even though it is the first thing they have to overcome for their plans to become reality.

[added 15 May 2015: Indeed, this also seems to be the explicit view of Von der Dunk in his legal report for EADP. The very first point of his final recommendations (p 32) reads:

"Address from an early stage onwards and in a continuing fashion the risk of ‘political fall-out’ outside the United States which EADP missions might give riseto, in particular as regards the use of NEDs in actual threat mitigation missions, byway of information of and appropriate consultation with the other states of the world, the United Nations and the global scientific community and by stressing the clear benefits for and interests of all mankind and all states in the EADP mission"
He also clearly warns (top of page 32) that not everybody might share his assessment that the EADP plans are not necessarily running counter to treaties like the NTB and OST:

"This is not to say, however, that in the present geo-political reality such a legal analysis would be globally shared, and efforts should be undertaken at the international level to minimise the potential for any ‘political fall-out’ that might result from the intended use of NEDs in outer space in such emergency scenarios, preferably by way of open and transparent information of, and as necessary consultation with, the other states of the world, the United Nations and the global scientific community"

i.e., on these points, the EADP commissioned Von der Dunk report actually confirms what I argue here: that geopolitically, this is a very sensitive issue. He also specifically mentions that circumnavigating these sensitivities takes a lot of time and diplomatic effort. I observe that this in turn is something which is nowhere reflected in the time-line put forward by EADP in their Indie-gogo appeal]

Their crowd-funding initiative hence seems extremely premature, and their timeplan is overtly ambitious given the realities of the diplomatic (apart from the technological and logistic) trouble they'll have to face.

What worries me, is that in their crowd-funding pitch to the public, they nowhere mention these fundamental issues. There for example isn't any statement that the Danish government is positively supporting all this (I have put out this question to EADP by twitter but received no answer yet). Nor on how they see their plans in the context of the various international treaties. [a legal report is included on their company webpage, but nothing of this is raised in their Indie-gogo appeal]

One of the EADP partners, Remco Timmermans, in answer to my question, simply claims on twitter that "This is a private enterprise. No government approval needed to do a technical design study".

Again, IANAL, but I highly doubt this is true. Private enterprises are not exempt of complying to the international treaties which their Governments sign, and the ramifications of such treaties are usually signed into the law of the signing country.

[Von der Dunk in his report does not discuss how this pertains to a technical design study, but makes very clear that government oversight indeed pertains to an actual space mission: "First, states are going to be held internationally responsible for any potential violation of international law resulting from space activities also if conducted by private entities. Further to such international responsibility, the ‘appropriate state’ would then be actually required to ensure “authorisation and continuing supervision" of such activities"].

So yes: government approval will be needed, given that Denmark signed treaties that (a) stipulate that Denmark does not acquire nuclear weapons technology on its own, nor acquires it from other countries; and (b) stipulate not to test weapons in space.

As pointed out,  the Outer Space Treaty explicitly states that Governments are responsible for what non-governmental organisations based in their country do in Space. I also doubt the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty would allow loopholes of the kind expressed by Timmermans. Just have your nuclear weapons developed by a private enterprise rather than the State and all is okay? That Kim never thought of this!

So I would expect the Danish government to take a keen interest in this. Here is a group of private citizens developing technology for a nuclear space mission, and indicating they will hand this technology to a third, foreign party for the operational part. That should raise alarm bells.

In another twitter answer to me EADP does say that the "legal raport [sic] and groundwork has been done" but here is the point:

To their audience of potential crowdfunders they do not say a thing about all these international legal and diplomatic issues involved.

And with whatever they may say on Twitter, I see no indication that these issues have been solved yet [added May 15, 2015: also not after reading Von der Dunk's commissioned report, which makes very clear that these geopolitical sensitivities should not be underestimated and demand action and openness from a very early stage onwards].

Again: IANASL (and I would like to see some independent Space Lawyers chime in here!). But you don't have to be a Space Lawyer to see the trouble ahead.

The whole crazy idea has elements in common with the much discussed Mars One project: a bold, even downright crazy plan that however speaks to the imagination (the project had immediate staunch supporters), and which National governments so far didn't dare to tackle yet. Ad to this a lot of publicity, an easy glossing over very real political problems involved, and presenting an unlikely timetable. And of course, having it all in the end primarily revolve around solliciting money from the public.

If EADP doesn't want to become the next Mars One and wants to be taken serious, they will have to explicitly and honestly address these issues first: their plans in the context of national and international agreements, laws, and geopolitical reality.

And yes, it sucks that the survival of humanity is held in suspension by such geopolitical realities. But what is new under the sun here? Look at how we (not) handle global warming.

[final notes added May 15, 2015: 

- EADP on twitter berates me for focussing on the nuclear part of the project. That is their good right of course: but I find it disingenious how they try to separate the issues around a nuclear explosive device (NED) from the rest of their project, given that a NED is an integral part of the eventual deflection technology they want to develop and test. In my opinion, you can't seperate the issue of launching a NED from the current discussion.

- I want to stress again that my main point is the apparent easy way with which EADP, in their Indie-gogo appeal towards potential financial backers, glosses over the geopolitical realities pertinent to their plan. It is my firm position that this is not correct: in order to make a fair judgement on whether this plan is backable, potential donors need to be honestly provided with information on the potential difficulties to be encountered as part of the endeavour.]

(I thank Brian Weeden for some comments on a draft of this post. All opinions expressed are however solely mine)

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On 16 September 2014, the US military launched an enigmatic satellite (2014-055A) from Cape Canaveral into a geostationary orbit. It was not disclosed for which agency the object was launched (this is information that usually is disclosed). Nor what its function would be (this is information sometimes but not always disclosed). All we know is the rather uninformative name, CLIO, that it was built by Lockheed Martin and based on their commercial A-2100 bus.

CLIO imaged on May 13, 2015 (click image to enlarge)

CLIO is currently located at longitude 108.0 E, over Indonesia, where I imaged it yesterday using the 0.51-m telescope of Warrumbungle (MPC Q65) in Australia. The image can be seen above: CLIO is positioned just north of Telkom 1 (1999 042A), an Indonesian satellite for satellite telephony. (since Telkom 1 is also built on a Lockheed A2100 bus, the brightness difference in the image above is interesting, and probably due to different attitudes (orientations) of the satellites, although it potentially could also indicate custom components on CLIO, e.g. something like a large dish antenna).

click to enlarge

In many ways CLIO appears similar to another enigmatic satellite,  PAN (USA 207, 2009-047A), launched in September 2009 and infamous among our amateur tracking network for its frequent repositioning.

PAN was also built by Lockheed Martin and like CLIO based on the A-2100 bus. As with CLIO, the government agency behind it was not disclosed, and no indications of its role provided. What was known, is that PAN was developed and built rapidly (in less than 3 years time) using off-the-shelf commercial parts, apparently in response to an urgent need of some undisclosed government agency (which I suspect is either the CIA or NSA). Much speculation has occurred about the role of the spacecraft. The frequent relocations (which stopped at the end of 2013) make clear it is not a simple communications or early warning platform. PAN is currently located at longitude 47.9 E over east Africa.

Because of the similarities, several analysts believe that CLIO, five years after PAN, is a follow-on to the PAN program. The two satellites are currently 60 degrees separated in longitude.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Tracking distant space debris: more Chang'e 2 r/b observations

In my previous post I related how on May 7 a distant piece of Space junk was briefly mistaken for a Near Earth Asteroid. It concerned 2010-050B, the upper stage of the Long March 3C rocket that launched the Chinese Lunar mission Chang'e 2 in October 2010. This upper stage is moving in a trans-Lunar orbit, with apogee up to almost two Lunar distances away from Earth. The rocket stage is 12.4 by 3 meters large.

Yesterday May 10, I obtained new images of the object, using the 0.61-m Cassegrain telescope of Sierra Stars Observatory in California, USA. Above is an animated GIF of the images. My resulting astrometric data are here.

The object was near mag. +15.3, at a distance of almost 518 800 km at that time. For a comparison: the distance to earth of the moon varies between about 356 400 and 406 700 km. It is quite cool to image space junk at this large a distance!

Click image to enlarge

Using my May 10 observations combined with the May 7 observations by the Catalina Sky Survey (MPC 703) and Peter Starr in Warrumbungle (MPC Q65), I compute the following orbit for the object:

Orbital elements: 2010-050B Chang'e 2 r/b

Perigee 2015 May 22.689019 +/- 0.00747 TT 
= 16:32:11 (JD 2457165.189019) 
Epoch 2015 May 7.0 TT = JDT 2457149.5       Find_Orb 

M 198.75910 +/- 0.037        
n 10.27730942 +/- 0.00562

a 452220.817 +/- 165 km    Peri. 151.22410 +/- 0.028 
e 0.2197903 +/- 0.000308   Node 226.29285 +/- 0.00006
i 41.13389 +/- 0.00028 
q 352827.032 +/- 267 km    Q 551614.602 +/-  68 km       
P 35.03 d        H 28.1 

From 23 observations 2015 May 7-10; mean residual 0".307.

In TLE form:

Chang'e 2 r/b                                 352827 x 551615 km 
1 00000U         15127.00000000  .00000000  00000-0 00000-0 0 09
2 00000 41.1326 226.5090 2163618 150.9650 199.0248 0.02835833 01

For those people with access to a  sufficiently large instrument that want to try it themselves: efemerids for the object can be obtained here.

I plan to include this object in my periodic observations of distant satellites.

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