Thursday, February 11, 2016

Observing NROL-45 (FIA Radar 4/TOPAZ 4) 18 hours after launch

NROL-45, imaged 18 hours after launch
(click to enlarge)

Yesterday (10 Feb 2016) at 11:40:32 UT, the NRO launched a new classified satellite from Vandenberg AFB, using a Delta-IV M rocket, under the launch designation NROL-45. The payload is the fourth FIA Radar (also known under the codename TOPAZ) and has the alternative designation USA 167 USA 267.

As with previous launches, our network of observers picked the payload up quite quickly. The first optical observations were made near 03:39 UT (11 Feb 2016), 16 hours after launch, by Cees Bassa in the Netherlands. Some two hours later, on the next pass, Leo Barhorst and me (both also in the Netherlands) observed NROL-45 as well, 18 hours after launch.

orbit of NROL-45, and position at time of photo
(click to enlarge)

A first preliminary orbit is given here and here. The satellite moves in a 122.98 degree inclined, retrograde orbit with perigee near 1086 km and apogee near 1087 km. The retrograde orbit is a clear indication that this satellite is a SAR (radar) satellite.

I did my observations under a very clear early morning sky, near 6:20 am local time. The NROL-45 payload was faint and could not be seen by the naked eye: this is normal during the first few days after launch. It will become brighter in a few days, likely because the SAR panel has then been unfolded.

With the launch of FIA Radar 4, there are now four FIA radars on orbit. Launch of a 5th one is expected in 2017. Of the current four satellites, the orbital configuration is such that the RAAN are 90 degree separated (see discussion by Ted Molczan here).

current FIA Radar constellation. NROL-45 in yellow.
(click to enlarge)

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