Monday, December 26, 2011

11-078B Soyuz 3rd stage reentry: answers to some frequently asked questions

In the wake of the spectacular reentry over NW Europe of the Soyuz 3rd stage 2011-078B on Saturday 24 December 2011, several common questions popped up in comments, e-mails, on Twitter and in newspaper discussions. I will answer a few below.

Frequently Asked Questions:

(Q1): Are these things predictable and who makes such predictions?
(Q2) Does it really take a Soyuz rocket 3rd stage three days to fall back to earth?
(Q3) Why doesn't this happen with each Soyuz launch? Or: why not over the same location on Earth?
(Q4) has anything of the rocket stage survived to earth surface?


(Q1): Are these things predictable and who makes such predictions?

(A): It is "sort of" predictable. Using computer models which take into account many factors of influence, one can make a prediction yielding an indication of the time a rocket stage or satellite will re-enter the atmosphere. However, even very close to that actual time of reentry, the uncertainty in these predictions is still very large. Exactly when a rocket stage will start to burn up depends on many factors, including the exact condition of the atmosphere at that moment, the shape of the rocket stage, and whether it is tumbling or not. In practise,  this turns out to be very difficult to model, even with the best computer models.

Several organisations and individuals do such predictions (and you can even find software for it on the internet). However, one of the most authoritive sources of such predictions is USSTRATCOM, the American military organisation that tracks manmade objects in space (many people think NASA does that job. But that is incorrect: it is USSTRATCOM, better known as 'NORAD'). They publish these predictions as 'TIP' messages. Their first prediction is published 2 months in advance. These still have a very large uncertainty (think of: weeks). In the days close to decay, they publish new estimates as new TIP messages that gradually become more exact. But even these can have uncertainties of several hours, even for predictions made on the day of the reentry itself.

For example, the last pre-reentry TIP message issued only 2 hours before the Soyuz 3rd stage came down, still had an uncertainty window of six hours.....

Once an object has reentered, USSTRATCOM does a post-analysis of the last orbital information, and publishes a "final' TIP message mentioning when and where the object came down (so this is done "after the fact"). These can be (but are not always, as it depends on how well the object was tracked during it's last hours of existence) very accurate. Sometimes, as was the case with this reentry of the Soyuz 3rd stage, they provide a time with an uncertainty of only minutes, plus a quite accurate position. In other cases, where less recent tracking data is available, the final uncertainty is much larger.

Note that a re-entering satellite or rocket booster has a speed of 7.5 km per second (4.7 miles per second)! So even if the predicted time has an uncertainty of just 15 minutes, this amounts to an uncertainty of 13,500 km (8,400 miles) in the position of the object when it reenters! This is why it is impossible to pinpoint the expected point of re-entry beforehand, when it is not a "controlled" re-entry. (in a "controlled" re-entry, the satellite operators send a command to the satellite to make a rocket burn at a precise time, kicking it down over a designated spot, usually the Pacific ocean. This Soyuz reentry was however not such a "controlled" reentry).

Many people mistakenly think that in this day and age of supercomputers, scientists (or the military) can predict everything. In reality, satellite/rocket reentries like this are so complex that even the best computer models can only give rough indications untill just minutes before the actual re-entry.

(Q2) Does it really take a Soyuz rocket 3rd stage three days to fall back to earth?

(A) Yes, it does. That last rocket stage is jettisoned that high above earth surface, that it does not just rapidly fall back on a ballistic trajectory (such as the 1st and 2nd stages do) but actually reaches Low Earth Orbit, and stays in orbit around the earth for several days. In effect, it becomes a satellite for a while in a very low orbit around Earth. Under influence of gravity and drag from the outer atmosphere, the orbit slowly evolves and becomes smaller and smaller. On the first day only gradually, but as it slowly comes down, this gradually goes faster and faster.

The influence of our atmosphere reaches several hundreds of kilometers up: even the International Space Station experiences some atmospheric drag, and would fall down within a year if its orbit was not regurlarly raised using the rocket engines of the Progress spacecraft docked to the ISS.

It takes about 3-4 days for a Soyuz 3rd stage from a launch to the ISS to come down. The exact amount of time is variable and different in each new case, as it depends on many factors. Our atmosphere is variable in extent and density, notably under the influence of solar activity. When the sun is active and many charged particles from solar outbursts reach earth, these interact with our atmosphere and the atmosphere slightly expands as a result of this. This means that objects at the altitude of the Space Station and below that (such as the Soyuz rocket stage) will experience a "thicker atmosphere", i.e. more drag from the atmosphere's outermost layers, and as a result they will come down faster. When it reaches at altitude of only 120 km (75 miles) it goes very quick: within minutes the rocket stage has dropped tens of kilometers, slowed down considerably, and finaly plunges straight down from that moment onwards.

The exact moment this happens, is highly dependant on these variations in extend of our atmosphere due to variations in solar activity. This is another reason why a satellite or rocket re-entry is so difficult to predict: one short but intense outburst occuring on the sun will next make a rocket stage fall back much quicker than expected.

Below diagram shows the orbital evolution of the Soyuz 3rd rocket stage that decayed last Saturday. It had to make 52 full orbits (full circles) around the Earth before it burned up. It's orbit was a bit "eccentric", which means that it was not a perfect circle but an ellipse. So on each revolution around the earth, there is a point where it is a bit higher above earth (called the "apogee") and a point where it is closest to the earth (called "perigee"). In the diagram, the values for these altitudes have been plotted as a red and blue line. Note how fast these altitudes change in the final hours before re-entry.

(Q3) Why doesn't this happen with each Soyuz launch? Or: why not over the same location on Earth?

(A) It does happen with each Soyuz launch to the ISS. The Soyuz 3rd stage always comes down some 3-4 days after the launch.

That reentry however is never over the same location on earth. The reasons for this, have already been outlined as part of the answer to question (2) above. An important factor of influence on how quickly a rocket stage comes down, is the variable earth's atmosphere, under influence of variability in solar activity. These factors are different for each new case. This is why the 3rd stages of Soyuz launches to the ISS never fall down near the same spot twice.

(Q4) has anything of the rocket stage survived to earth surface?

(A) Not that we so far know of. Usually, the rocket stage almost completely burns up in the atmosphere. Sometimes, a few smaller bits survive (quite often spherical fuel tanks). For example, an object that is likely a rocket fuel tank came down in Namibia in November and might be part of a rocket stage used in a Russian November  launch to the International Space Station.

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