Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Observing USA 259 (NROL-35)

On December 13th, 2014, the NRO launched NROL-35 out of Vandenberg AFB into a Molniya orbit. The payload, USA 259 (2014-081A) is most likely a SIGINT, and possibly piggybacks a SBIRS sensor, according to analysts.

USA 259 (NROL-35) imaged by me on 28 December 2014

Our tracking network quite quickly picked up the payload. Peter Wakelin first picked it up from Britain on December 13, followed by Scott Tilley in Canada and Cees Bassa in the Netherlands a few hours later. In the two weeks since, the payload has been observed to be manoeuvering in order to get into its intended orbit.

My own first observations of the payload were done in the evening of December 28 (see image above, taken with the F2.8/180mm Zeiss Sonnar) during short clearings. It had been a clear day, but clouds rolled in around nightfall. The satellite was located high over the Northern Atlantic near aphelion at this time at an altitude of 34500 km, and situated high in the sky in Cepheus as seen from Leiden.

orbital position at time of the photograph
view from the satellite

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