Friday, March 14, 2014

USA 245 now also recovered

One by one the KH-11 KENNAN/CRYSTAL ("Keyhole')  optical reconnaissance satellites are emerging from their winter blackout on the Northern hemisphere (see a previous post). After USA 186 (2005-042A) in the secondary West plane late February, now USA 245 (2013-043A), the new primary West plane satellite, has been recovered.

USA 186 in the secondary West plane imaged on March 11
(click image to enlarge)
During wintertime the KH-11's are not visible from the Northern hemisphere: they are eternally eclipsed by the earth shadow during these months. Only late February/Early March they reappear. Observations during the Northern hemisphere winter season solely rest on the shoulders of our single Southern hemisphere observer, Greg in South Africa. He starts to lose sight of the West plane KH's late January to early February.

I did a failed attempt to recover USA 245 on March 3, continuously imaging its last known orbital plane for 19 minutes (10 minutes before and 10 minutes after the nominal pass time). Nothing was seen. I should have kept on the attempt longer: Russell Eberst in Scotland was more lucky that evening and got a single position. It turned out it was even more late (36 minutes) than the time period covered by my attempt.

The next person to observe it was Cees Bassa in the Netherlands on March 8. The next day, March 9, it was finally my turn and I could do my first post-winter-blackout observations! Several other observers (e.g. Jon Mikkel in Spain, Leo Barhorst in the Netherlands) also picked it up around this date.

I was nearly fooled on March 9 by a bright object that appeared about two minutes before USA 245, moving along a similar track. It turned out to be the French optical reconnaissance satellite SPOT 4 and not USA 245 being too early. Luckily, I kept photographing and soon captured the real USA 245.

The visibility of USA 245 has since been rapidly increasing. The satellite is currently already making zenith passes for my location. The image below I shot on March 11:

USA 245 in the primary West plane imaged on March 11
(click image to enlarge)

The hunt is now on for the third of the West plane objects, USA 129 (1996-072A) which should be slowly emerging from invisibility, at first only very low in the North, but soon higher in the sky during the last week of March. It was manoeuvered into a much lower orbit near January 27 (see a previous post). It will be interesting to follow it, as I still suspect it to be de-orbitted, perhaps later this year.

The East plane midnight KH-11's USA 161 (2001-044A) and USA 224 (2011-002A) will start to emerge from darkness about mid-April and have currently not been seen for several months.

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