Tuesday, 6 April 2021

LUCH (Olymp-K), an eavesdropping SIGINT snooping around commercial comsats

 

click image to enlarge

Back in 2016, I published an article in The Space Review (A NEMESIS in the sky: PAN, Mentor 4 and Close Encounters of the SIGINT kind) about the mysterious US classified satellite PAN, and Mentor 4, another classified US satellite.

Both are SIGINT satellites launched in 2009, that are positioned close to commercial telephony communications satellites in GEO in order to eavesdrop on their communications. While Mentor 4 (an ADVANCED ORION) dedicatedly covers Thuraya 2, PAN (NEMESIS 1) moved from satellite to satellite in a 'roving' role every few months during the first 5 years of its operational existence. Its sister ship CLIO (NEMESIS 2) launched in 2014 has done pretty much the same.

But (of course) the USA is not the only country playing this game. In the same year that CLIO (NEMESIS 2) was launched, the Russian Federation launched LUCH (2014-048A), aka OLYMP-K or OLIMP-K. In 2015, in an essay in The Space Review, Brian Weeden pointed out that LUCH was roving from satellite to satellite too, possibly eavesdropping on their communications. This created headlines at the time. By all means, LUCH/OLYMP-K is the Russian equivalent of PAN and CLIO.

The diagram below shows the frequent repositionings of LUCH/OLYMP-K over the years ( a table with major repositionings is at the end of this post):


click diagram to enlarge

LUCH has recently (in the second week of February, 2021) been relocating from longitude 3 W to 8 W and is now positioned near EUTELSAT 8 WEST B (2015-039B). Before the relocation, it had been close to ABS-3A (2015-010A) for several weeks. 

I shot this image below on March 29th, when LUCH and EUTELSAT 8 WEST B were about 90 km apart:

 

click image to enlarge


The image was made with a CANON EOS 80D and Samyang 2.0/135 mm lens (10 seconds at 1000 ISO) and was a by-product of targetting MEV-2 and several classified objects in this stretch of sky.

The table below gives longitudinal positions for LUCH/OLYMP-K. The table focusses on major relocations.

Dates refer to he moments the longitude appears to get stabilized, and have generally been preceeded by a period of drift. Also indicated is what satellite was closest to LUCH/OLYMP-K at the start of each stable period. Note that in several cases, multiple satellites were close by and possibly targetted as well.


TABLE: positions of LUCH/OLYMP-K since late 2014 

DATE          LON      NEAR

17-02-2021    08.1 W   EUTELSAT 8 West B       2015-039B
06-11-2020    03.1 W   ABS-3A                  2015-010A
28-09-2020    04.9 W   Eutelsat 5W B           2019-067A
11-05-2020    01.1 W   Intelsat 10-02          2014-058A
28-03-2020    21.5 E   EUTELSAT 21B            2012-062B
28-11-2019    70.6 E   EUTELSAT 70B            2012-069A
22-10-2019    68.4 E   Intelsat 20             2012-043A
25-08-2019    65.9 E   Intelsat 17             2010-065B
01-07-2019    64.0 E   Intelsat 906            2002-041A
21-02-2019    60.0 E   Intelsat 33E            2016-053B
28-10-2018    57.0 E   NSS 12                  2009-058A
03-07-2018    49.9 E   Turksat 4B              2015-060A
07-06-2018    48.0 E   Eutelsat 28B            2008-065B
27-04-2018    47.5 E   Yahsat 1B               2012-016A
17-01-2018    41.9 E   Turksat 4A              2014-007A
25-10-2017    38.1 E   Paksat 1R               2011-042A
18-08-2017    32.7 E   Intelsat New Dawn       2011-016A
14-09-2016    09.9 E   Eutelsat 10A            2009-016A
11-01-2016    01.1 W   Intelsat 10-02          2004-022A
05-10-2015    24.3 W   Intelsat 905            2002-027A
26-06-2015    18.1 W   Intelsat 901            2001-024A
22-02-2015    96.4 E   Express AM-33           2008-003A


Tuesday, 30 March 2021

[UPDATED] Cosmic Ballet: approach of MEV-2 and Intelsat 10-02 imaged

image from 2 April 2021. Click image to enlarge

At geosynchronous altitudes, a cosmic ballet is happening between Intelsat 10-02 (2004-022A) and MEV-2 (2020-056B). I imaged the pair last night, spurred to do so by Bob Christy. The pair was almost due south at 30 degrees elevation for me. 

 

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge
 

A small complication was imposed by the current Corona-curfew, as it means I cannot go out to the spot where I normally photograph geosynchronous objects: so I had to target the camera through the loft window (which has a limited FOV).

MEV-2 ("Mission Extension Vehicle 2") is the second of Northrop-Grumman's satellite servicing missions. It's mission is to dock to Intelsat 10-02, a communication satellite launched in 2004, and extend the lifetime duration of this satellite by 5 years, providing it with fresh fuel and a new engine.

MEV-2 has made a number of close approaches to Intelsat 10-02 over the past weeks (see Bob Christy's detailed account of their movements on his website), in preparation for docking..

The MEV-2 predecessor MEV-1 successfully docked to Intelsat 901 in February of 2020 and then brought it from a graveyard orbit into an operational geosynchronous orbit. It also had to make several close approach attempts before effecting the docking at the time.

In the image above, I have labelled the brightest object as Intelsat 10-02 and the fainter one as MEV-2. Space-track has it the other way around, but according to observers who are following the duo for a while, they have mixed up the ID's. This often happens with objects close to each other in GEO, as it is acknowledgedly difficult to keep track of which is which. In this case, the brightness difference of the objects provide a  way to discern them. One expects Intelsat to be brighter than MEV-2.

The image is a 10-second exposure with a Canon EOS 80D and a Samyang 2.0/135 mm lens at ISO 1000.


UPDATE 1  30 March 2021 22:00 UT

I imaged MEV-2 and Intelsat 10-02 again this evening. They are still in the same relative position to each other as yesterday. The image below is a stack of 10 images (10s exposure each): the stack brings out the fainter MEV-2 a bit better than in yesterday's single image sabove.

click image to enlarge

Space-Track has, in their latest orbital updates, switched the identities back to what they should be, now designating the fainter object as MEV-2. You'd almost say they read my tweets... ;-)


UPDATE 2, 2 April 2021 13:00 UT:

Lats night was clear, so I imaged the duo again, after they came out of earth shadow. Due to the good phase angle, they were quite bright. Several other geosats visible in the vicinity as well. The image below was shot at 00:52:57 - 00:53:07 UT on April 2 (1600 ISO, 10 seconds, Canon EOS 80D + Samyang 2.0/135 mm):


click image to enlarge

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

[UPDATED] Reentry predictions for the Falcon 9 RB 2021-017BN

click diagram to enlarge

In my previous post, I discussed 2021-017BN, the Falcon 9 upper stage from the March 4 Starlink launch that should have been deorbitted after 1.5 revolutions on March 4th, but didn't.

It is still on orbit. At the moment of writing, 23 March 2021 at 11:00 UT, it is in a 217 x 200 km orbit according to the latest available elements from CSpOC, and it will stay on orbit for a couple of days to come. But the end is near: the orbital altitude of the rocket stage is quickly decaying, as can be seen in the diagram below:

click diagram to enlarge

My current reentry prediction (see diagram in top of post and table below) is that it will come down in the early hours of March 26 (2021). My prediction, based on modelling in GMAT R2020a using the MSISE90 model atmosphere, appears to be well in line with the TIP from CSpOC so far.

[UPDATE: my final post-cast predicted reentry at 26 Mar 04:34 UT, which is some 35 minutes too late. It is based on a 2/3rd maximum drag surface value. Interstingly, using the maximum drag surface leads to a reenrty at 3:56 Ut, within minutes f the actual time]

Revisit this post for prediction updates in the coming days.

orbit epoch     pred. date     reentry time (UT)
21081.600725    26 Mar 2021    02:33 +- 16.8 hr
21081.922054    26 mar 2021    03:36 +- 15.5 hr
21082.113317    26 Mar 2021    03:59 +- 14.7 hr
21082.216601    26 Mar 2021    03:40 +- 14.1 hr
21082.278149    26 Mar 2021    03:43 +- 13.8 hr
21082.462749    26 Mar 2021    05:29 +- 13.3 hr
21082.585776    26 Mar 2021    05:29 +- 12.7 hr
21082.708770    26 Mar 2021    05:37 +- 12.1 hr
21082.954651    26 Mar 2021    06:13 +- 11.1 hr
21083.138960    26 Mar 2021    05:03 +-  9.9 hr
21083.261785    26 Mar 2021    05:15 +-  9.4 hr
21083.296296    26 Mar 2021    05:20 +-  9.2 hr
21083.507296    26 Mar 2021    05:28 +-  8.3 hr
21083.875164    26 Mar 2021    05:26 +-  6.5 hr
21084.120127    26 Mar 2021    05:59 +-  5.4 hr
21084.181325    26 Mar 2021    05:20 +-  5.0 hr
21084.486963    26 Mar 2021    05:00 +-  3.5 hr
21084.548018    26 Mar 2021    03:19 +-  2.8 hr
21084.974688    26 Mar 2021    04:46 +-  1.1 hr * post-cast
21085.095602    26 Mar 2021    04:34 +-  0.5 hr * final post-cast


UPDATE  26 March 2021  12:30 UT:

The reentry happened last night, over North America, and was widely seen from the US States Washington and Oregon, near 4:00 UT (March 26 UT: that is 9 pm on March 25 local time for that area).

CSpOC's final TIP places the reentry at 03:58 +- 1 min UT. This time matches the reports from Washington and Oregon well, and based on the last orbit it would indeed place the rocket stage near the NW United States coast.

The listed geographic position in the TIP, 24.5 N, 151 W, does however not match well (it is further down the track, near Hawaii, corresponding to the Falcon 9 position about 6 minutes prior to the observed reentry). We have  noted such discrepancies more often in recent TIP messages. In this case, I half suspect the position was that given by their reentry model, and they forgot to update it when the SBIRS detection of the actual reentry fireball came in.

click map to enlarge

My own final "post-cast" places reentry some 35 minutes after the actual reentry.

Here are some of the reentry sightings as reported on Twitter:

 

UPDATE 2 April 2021 23:00 UT:

Debris has been recovered from this reentry. In Grant Country, Washington, a Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel (COPV) was found on farmland.


 

 

Friday, 12 March 2021

Apparent failed deorbit of the Starlink-18 Falcon 9 upper stage [UPDATED]

On 4 March 2021, after several delays, SpaceX launched the 18th Starlink batch (Starlink-18 or V1.0-17). While the launch and deployment profile appears to have been similar to other recent Starlink launches, it appears that something went wrong with the Falcon 9 upper stage near the end of its mission.

On March 8th, Polish observer Adam Hurcewicz reported a bright, fast object in the orbital plane of this launch, passing a few minutes before the main Starlink "train". It was seen on subsequent nights and by other observers as well: the video above is from the early morning of March 9. At it's brightest, this fast moving object reportedly reaches mag -3. It does not appear to match a known object from earlier launches. It also didn't match supplementary TLE's for the Starlink-18 payloads from Celestrak (which are based on State Vectors from SpaceX). The Polish observers therefore speculated it was the Falcon 9 upper stage from the launch. 

But that would be against expectations. The Falcon 9 upper stage normally does not stay in orbit: it is de-orbitted soon after payload release, usually about 1.5 revolutions (about 2.5 hours) after launch. So if this object is the Falcon 9 upper stage, this suggests  something went wrong and it failed to deorbit.

The speculation that this object is the Falcon 9 Upper Stage can now be bolstered by additional information. The first orbital element sets for this Starlink launch have appeared on the CSpOC portal  Space-Track late yesterday (11 March), with catalogue numbers ranging from 47722 to 47786. And they show an extra object!

With Starlink launches, 64 objects are usually catalogued: 60 payloads and four 'Falcon 9 debris' pieces. The latter 'debris' pieces are the payload stack retaining rods: four metal rods which keep the satellite stack together on top of the upper stage. They are jettisoned upon payload release.

An elset for the Falcon 9 upper stage is usually not released by CSpOC: as it normally stays on-orbit for barely more than 1 revolution, it is not catalogued.

But this time, not 64 but 65 objects have been catalogued. The extra 65th object must be the Falcon 9 upper stage, and it indicates it stayed on orbit for more than a few revolutions. Which lines up with the observations by the Polish (and later also other) observers.

Although the 65 objects, at the moment of writing, do not have been individually ID-ed by CSpOC yet (all have the temporary designation "TBA - TO BE ASSIGNED"), the 60 payloads, four retaining rods and the upper stage as such can be clearly identified among them. The objects separate in 3 groups in terms of orbital altitude. The 60 payloads all have (for orbits with epoch 12 March) a perigee above 280 km. The four retaining rods have clearly lower orbits: their perigee is near 243-246 km and apogee near 268-278 km.

The 65th object, which by inference must be the Falcon 9 upper stage, is in a still lower orbit . It has the smallest semi-major axis of all of them with perigee near 237 km and apogee near 270 km. The orbit for this object, catalogue nr 47782 (2021-071BN) also closely matches the observations by the Polish observers.

So why is the Falcon 9 upper stage still on-orbit? It suggests of course that the deorbit went not as planned, i.e. it failed for some reason (e.g. the rocket engine refusing to restart).

That the Falcon 9 upper stage should have deorbitted on March 4, after 1.5 revolutions, is clear from the Navigational Warnings that were issued in connection to this launch. Navigational Warning HYDROPAC 695/21 delineates the usual elongated deorbit zone in the Indian Ocean familiar from earlier Starlink launches:

 

021948Z MAR 21
HYDROPAC 695/21(GEN).
SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN.
1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS, SPACE DEBRIS
   041024Z TO 041326Z MAR,
   ALTERNATE 051004Z TO 051306Z MAR
   IN AREA BOUND BY
   29-43S 060-07E, 24-55S 064-27E,
   38-45S 084-30E, 45-12S 099-45E,
   49-46S 119-13E, 50-42S 138-19E,
   48-50S 156-44E, 51-46S 158-08E,
   54-42S 148-32E, 56-20S 131-03E,
   55-52S 107-50E, 49-11S 085-05E,
   34-32S 064-13E.
2. CANCEL HYDROPAC 685/21.
3. CANCEL THIS MSG 051406Z MAR 21.


I have plotted the zones from the Area Warnings connected to the launch in this map, along with the groundtrack for the first 1.5 orbital revolutions. The large elongated red zone in the southern Indian Ocean is the planned deorbit area from Navigational Warning HYDROPAC 695/21:

click map to enlarge

The position of the reentry hazard zone indicates a reentry was planned around 10:55 UT (March 4), 1.5 revolutions (2h 30m) after launch, following a deorbit burn some 30 minutes earlier.

But the deorbit evidently did not happen as it should have: the upper stage is still orbiting as we speak, a week after launch. The issued Navigational Warning for the deorbit hazard zone strongly suggests this is not intentional.

So how long will the upper stage stay in orbit? The current orbit is low (237 x 271 km), and the object is large (16 x 3.66 meter, with a mass of 4.5 tons) so eventually the rocket stage will have an uncontrolled reentry, somewhere between latitudes 53 deg N and 53 deg S. 

A first assessment using both SatEvo and a GMAT simulation suggests that the reentry will probably happen in the last few days of March or the first few days of April.



UPDATE 14 March 2021:
CSpOC has now added identifications to the objects, and indeed object 47782 is now listed as "Falcon 9 RB"

Monday, 8 February 2021

A possible (now CONFIRMED) Trident-II SLBM test launch between February 9 and 14, 2021 [UPDATED]

click map to enlarge

A Navigational Warning, NAVAREA IV 117/21, appeared yesterday, and is suggestive of an upcoming Trident-II SLBM test in the Atlantic. I have posted on such test launches before.

This is the text of the Navigational Warning:

 071431Z FEB 21
 NAVAREA IV 117/21(GEN).
 ATLANTIC OCEAN.

 1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS, ROCKET LAUNCHING
    091340Z TO 140226Z FEB IN AREAS BOUND BY:
    A. 28-56N 76-17W, 28-56N 75-34W,
       28-36N 75-34W, 28-43N 76-17W.
    B. 28-02N 73-18W, 28-17N 73-13W,
       27-47N 71-11W, 27-34N 71-17W,
       27-44N 72-10W.
    C. 26-25N 67-23W, 26-47N 67-10W,
       25-44N 63-47W, 25-06N 63-57W,
       25-32N 65-52W.
    D. 17-10N 45-30W, 17-37N 45-11W,
       16-53N 43-06W, 15-23N 41-22W,
       14-46N 41-42W, 16-11N 44-26W.
    E. 06-00S 09-39W, 05-13S 09-08W,
       06-37S 06-56W, 07-17S 07-22W,
       06-55S 07-57W, 07-00S 08-05W.
 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140326Z FEB 21.


The map in top of this post shows the hazard areas A to E from this Navigational Warning plotted, and a fitted ballistic trajectory. Together they define what strongly looks like a Trident-II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) trajectory

Area 'A' is the launch area where the submarine is located; areas 'B', 'C' and 'D' is where respectively the first, second and third stages of the missile splash down; area 'E' is the target area of the warhead(s).

The indicated range, from the distance between area's A and E, is about 8400 km. That is somewhat shorter than most earlier Trident-II tests in the Atlantic.

Earlier tests in the Atlantic typically had a range near  9800 km, in one case even 10 600 km (see my overview here). So this test falls short from a  typical test by about 1500 km. 

An earlier clearly shorter range was however indicated for the infamous June 2016 Royal British Navy Trident-II test, which would have had a 8900 km range with a target area west of Ascension Island if it had not failed. The range of the upcoming February 2021 test is 500 km shorter than that of this June 2016 test, with a target area slightly more north and the launch area further out of the Florida coast. 

The launch area is nevertheless a familiar one: one of two areas regularly used for Atlantic Trident test launches

It is the same as that for the 10 Sep 2013, March 2016 and June 2018 Trident tests. It is the area labelled 'launch area B' in the map below, which plots the launch areas of several previous Trident tests. The figure comes from this previous post and is discussed there (including a suggestion for why there might be two distinct launch areas).

click map to enlarge
 

The target area near Ascension Island and shorter range might perhaps indicate that this will be a British Royal Navy test with the SLBM launched from a Vanguard-class submarine rather than a US Navy test, but this is by no means certain. It could also mean a US Navy test with new hardware, e.g. a more heavy dummy warhead or a new stage engine.

US Navy tests are usually acknowledged after the test, so it will be interesting to see whether such an acknowledgement will appear from either the US or British Navy.


UPDATE  10 Feb 2021 10:50 UT

Overnight, images and footage have appeared from Florida and Bahama residents that show an exhaust plume, indicating that the test indeed took place, near 23:30 UT on Feb 9. These are a few of them:


 

The imagery shows the sun-illuminated exhaust plume of the missile. The missile itself is in space by that time, ascending towards its ~1200-1800 km apogee.

I did a quick calculation: for a launch at 23:30 UT on 9 February 2021, the missile (and its expanding exhaust plume) should break into sunlight about a minute after launch once above ~147 km altitude. I have indicated the sunlit part of the trajectory in the map below in yellow. This means that the exhaust plume on the imagery is from either the second or third stage of the missile.

click map to enlarge

UPDATE 16 Feb 2021:

The Drive reports that the US Navy has now confirmed that this was a Trident test. The name of the submarine from which the missile was launched has not been released.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Virgin Orbit to launch first satellite for the Royal Dutch Air Force this year

 

Brik-II patch (collection author)

Today, Virgin Orbit and the Dutch Ministery of Defense announced that Brik-II, the first satellite owned by the Royal Dutch Air Force (RNLAF), will be launched this year on an upcoming LauncherOne mission.

Brik-II is a 6U cubesat that will host various experiments, reportedly including communications relay, space weather determination, and ELINT. Brik-II was built for the RNLAF by ISIS/ISISpace. Launch was originally scheduled for 2019.

About the launch, Virgin Orbit notes that :

"As part of the Netherlands’ broader plan to pursue a responsive space capability, RNLAF, Virgin Orbit and ISIS will pursue a demonstration of “late-load” integration, mating the payload to the rocket shortly prior to launch. This exercise will prove critical in pioneering the payload processing capabilities required to execute responsive launch"


The satellite is named after a previous pioneering Brik: Brik was the name of the very first aircraft of the "Luchtvaartafdeeling" ("Air Department") of the Dutch Army, a forerunner of the Royal Dutch Air Force. This first Brik was built by Martinus van Meel in 1913.

This is that first aircraft called Brik, photographed in 1916 with Lt. Versteegh behind the stick:

The first Brik. Collection Netherlands Institute for Militairy History (NIMH)

"Brik" is a facetious name used in Dutch for both an old cart, old car or old bicycle, as well as a two-masted sailing vessel (the English 'Brig'), and a word used for a poor quality building brick (hence the patch in top of this post).

Saturday, 9 January 2021

First optical observations of the NROL-108 payloads USA 312 and USA 313

In the early morning of January 9, I made the my first optical observations of the two payloads, USA 312 and USA 313 (2020-101A & B)  from the December 19 NROL-108 launch (see my earlier post here for more info on this somewhat enigmatic launch). Both were bright: USA 313 was about magnitude +4.5 and USA 312 about +5.5.

Radio observers already detected one of the payloads on December 20, and the second on January 5th. I used their preliminary TLE's to optically hunt for the objects this morning, which saw a clear frosty sky in Leiden. [edit: as it turns out, Russell Eberst observed both objects one day before me. I somehow had missed that]

USA 313, the leading object, was 13 seconds early and as much as 2.4 degrees off-track relative to the January 5 radio elset. USA 312, the chasing object, was about 1 second early and half a degree off-track relative to the January 5 radio elset.

USA 312 was about 2 minutes behind USA 313. Their orbits are co-planar and on the same orbital altitude, and the true distance between the two was about 900 km at the moment of observation. They are likely meant to operate as a pair, and it will be interesting to see whether they will perform any proximity manoeuvres in the future.

A second fainter object chased USA 312: this turned out to be STARLINK-1632. Their close proximity is almost certainly coincidence, and the result of the increasing number of Starlink satellites on orbit.

The video in the top of this post, shot with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens, shows USA 313 first, and then USA 312 with Starlink-1632 close by.

 

Click image to enlarge



Friday, 25 December 2020

Seasons Greetings!


 

To all of you who read this blog, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy, above all Healthy and Productive 2021!

What a strange year 2020 has become....Let's hope 2021 brings vaccines for all of us, and a return to a normal life.

As for my fellow satellite trackers:



(top image: comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE above the domes of the histori Leiden Observatory on 18 July 2020)

 

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

NROL-108: another mystery launch perhaps similar to NROL-76 (USA 276)? [UPDATED]


UPDATE 17 December 2020 16:15 UT:

today's launch was scrubbed due to a pressure anomaly in the upper stage. A new launch attempt will be on December 18th 19th.

UPDATE 20 December 2020 12:20 UT:
NROL-108 launched succesfully on 19 december at 14:00 UT. A fuel dump was observed from New Zealand.


On 17 18 19 December 2020, SpaceX will launch a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The launch, from Cape Canaveral platform 39A in Florida, is designated NROL-108. The Navigational Warnings window opens at 13:55 UT and closes at 17:52 UT, pointing to launch somewhere between ~14:00-17:45 UT [edit: the scrub on December 17 suggests a window starting at 14:45 UT and ending at 17:00 UT] . The first stage will attempt to do a RTLS (return-to-launch-site).

NROL-108 is very odd as it was a surprise addition to the launch schedule in early October 2020, seemingly coming out of nowhere. It was originally slated for launch on October 25, but was postponed to December. The character of the mission is a mystery: this looks to be something new again.

The following Navigational Warnings have appeared for the launch hazard areas and the Falcon 9 upper stage deorbit area:

 NAVAREA IV 1201/20
 WESTERN NORTH ATLANTIC.
 FLORIDA.
 1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS, ROCKET LAUNCHING
    171355Z TO 171752Z DEC, ALTERNATE
    181355Z TO 181752Z DEC
 IN AREAS BOUND BY:
 A. 28-39-43N 080-38-12W, 29-02-00N 080-15-00W,
    28-57-00N 080-08-00W, 28-40-00N 080-11-00W,
    28-27-00N 080-24-00W, 28-26-52N 080-32-07W.
 B. 30-12-00N 079-06-00W, 30-28-00N 078-56-00W,
    30-54-00N 078-52-00W, 31-14-00N 078-13-00W,
    31-06-00N 077-36-00W, 30-47-00N 077-22-00W,
    30-27-00N 077-26-00W, 30-08-00N 078-20-00W,
    30-03-00N 078-58-00W.
 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 181852Z DEC 20.//


 HYDROPAC 3673/20
 EASTERN PACIFIC.
 DNC 06, DNC 13.
 1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS, SPACE DEBRIS
    171508Z TO 171841Z DEC, ALTERNATE
    181508Z TO 181841Z DEC
 IN AREA BOUND BY
    12-27S 135-24W, 11-03S 135-01W,
    04-31N 125-02W, 12-23N 118-23W,
    11-34N 117-22W, 01-11N 123-20W,
    11-32S 132-38W, 13-10S 134-27W.
 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 181941Z DEC 20.//


These hazard areas plotted on a map:

click map to enlarge

 

The time window for the upper stage deorbit and the fact that the first stage will attempt an RTLS point to a launch into Low Earth Orbit. The launch direction and the location of the Falcon 9 upper stage deorbit area point to a launch into an orbit with an orbital inclination near 52 degrees.

The location of the launch hazard areas is somewhat similar to the launch hazard area for the May 2017 mystery launch of USA 276 (NROL-76). In the map below, the two hazard areas for NROL-108 are in red, while the launch hazard area for NROL-76 (USA 276) from May 2017 is in blue:

click map to enlarge

USA 276/NROL-76 was a mystery NRO launch, like NROL-108 launched by SpaceX, in May 2017, that raised eyebrows because the payload made a series of very close flyby's of the International Space Station a month after launch (see my July 2017 article in The Space Review).

USA 276 went, as subsequent orbital observations of the payload by our amateur network showed, into a ~400 km altitude, 50-degree inclined orbit, so a 50-degree inclined orbit is perhaps also an option for NROL-108.

Such a 50-degrees inclined orbit does not match well with the position of the deorbit zone for the Falcon 9 upper stage. The latter will be deorbitted over the eastern Pacific near the end of the first revolution, the Navigational Warnings show. So for now, the 52-degree inclination (give or take a degree) looks a bit more likely. Still, I do not want to rule out a 50-degree inclined orbit altogether, as the Falcon 9 upper stage might end up in a somewhat different orbit than the payload

In May 2017, USA 276 was launched into an orbital plane very close to that of the ISS, which resulted in the close encounters a month later. 

The launch window for NROL-108 (~14:00-17:50 UT) rules out that NROL-108 will do something similar: the ISS orbital plane does not pass over or near the launch site during this time window. 

It is possible however that NROL-108 aims for an orbital plane near that of USA 276. The orbital plane of USA 276, which due to orbital precession over the past 3 years no longer is close to that of the ISS, passes over Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 39A near 17:02 UT, inside the NROL-108 launch window. This opens up the possibility that NROL-108 is perhaps a close approach target for USA 276, or USA 276 is a close approach target for NROL-108 (but that is pure and wild speculation: Caveat Emptor). [UPDATE: see the update at end of this post. It did not target the USA 276 orbital plane]

It will be interesting to see in which orbit NROL-108 will end up. As I have remarked with some launches earlier  this year, the latest NRO launches all seem to be  'new' kinds of payloads that are likely experimental/Mission demonstrators, and which go into 'new' kinds of orbits: lately we have frequently seen orbital inclinations near 50-degrees and odd orbital altitudes (either very low or very high). NROL-108 will certainly go into a Low Earth Orbit, and it will be interesting to see what the exact launch time will be, whether it will go into a 400 km orbit similar to the orbital altitude of USA 276, and what the eventual orbital inclination will be.


UPDATE 20 December 2020:

NROL-108 launched succesfully at 14:00 UT on December 19th. Slightly over an hour after launch, near 15:15 UT, a fuel dump (following a deorbit burn) from the Falcon 9 upper stage was observed from New Zealand. The facebook-post here shows the classic spiral shape of such a fuel dump. The Youtube video below shot from Pukehina Beach by Astrofarmer shows less detail but includes time details:

 

 

Assuming the included times in the video are correct, this allows me to make a new estimate of the orbital altitude in which the satellite was inserted, which is probably ~600 km rather than the ~400 km of my initial estimate, looking at the time the rocket stage passed south of New Zealand:


NROL-108
1 70000U 20999A   20354.58333333  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    04
2 70000 051.9000 194.4979 0003581 047.9699 326.1978 14.88539141    08

The orbital inclination of the satellite is still a bit uncertain but likely ~52 degrees.

The launch time (14:00 UT) excludes that the orbital plane of USA 276 was targetted (the orbital plane of the latter passed over the launch site two hours after launch).

 

UPDATE 2 (20 Dec 2020):

Radio observers have now catalogued the payload in a 519 x 539 km, 51.35 degree inclined orbit.



Friday, 27 November 2020

USA 310 (NROL-101) and it's Centaur on 25 November

click image to enlarge
 

The image above was taken between 1:28:22 - 1:28:27 UT on November 25, and shows both USA 310 (the NROL-101 payload) and its Centaur upper stage in one image. 

At the moment of imaging they were only some 48 arcminutes apart in the sky. Their real distance to each other was ~541 km. The image was made with a Canon EOS 80D and Samyang 2.0/135 mm lens.

Since launch the Centaur, which is is a somewhate lower, more eccentric orbit than the payload, has gained one complete lap on the payload, and it was overtaking it while I was imaging them in the early hours of  November 25. Their closest approach (at a very safe distance of 533 km) was  a few minutes after the image above, at 1:33:29 UT (25 November 2020).

Note the brightness difference between the two, the Centaur upper stage being clearly brighter than the payload. In this image, the Centaur is near the peak of its periodic brightness variation. In a previous post I have detailed the character of the brightness variation of the Centaur.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Brightness variation of the NROL-101 Centaur upper stage from video observations

 In my previous post I discussed our tracking of the recently launched NROL-101 objects: the payload (USA 310, 2020-083A) and the Centaur upper stage (2020-083B). The latter is variable in brightness (which is one reason why we think it is the Centaur), and I included a preliminary flash period determination of ~140 seconds in that post, based on analysis of my photographs.

click diagram to enlarge

 

I can now revise this to 138.02 seconds peak-to-peak, as the result of video observations on 22 November. The Centaur was semi-continously imaged over a 23-minute period, covering 10 brightness peaks, with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens. Photometric analysis with TANGRA yielded the curve above. 

The brightness diagram starts around the time of zenith passage, at an elevation of 87.6 degrees and ends at an elevation of 56.3 degrees. The phase angle changes from 30.6 degrees at the start to 32.3 degrees at the end, the range from 10525 to 11254 km.

The fitted sinusoid gives a peak-to-peak periodicity of 138.02 seconds. The rocket stage varied between roughly magnitude +6 and +8.5 in brightness. The corresponding absolute magnitude, given the range and phase angle, is +2.0 (peaks) to +4.5 (valleys). 

In the first 'valley' in the curve, there is a brief specular flare. Likewise, there seems to be a narrow steep feature on the top of the brightness peaks.

Filming was done at 25 frames/second. A brightness determination was done at every 4th frame. The curve shows 3-point running averages of these determinations.

The calibration from Red magnitude to Visual magnitude is provisional. Gaps in the curve are periods without data, due to e.g. repositioning of the camera field.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Tracking objects in MEO from the NROL-101 (USA 310) launch [updated]

 

NROL-101 payload USA 310. Click image to enlarge

On 13 November 2020 at 22:32 UT, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched NROL-101 for the National Recconnaissance Office (NRO) from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral. CSpOC catalogued the payload as USA 310 under #46918 (2020-083A) and also catalogued the Centaur r/b as #46919 (2020-083B). The payload is classified and orbital elements for both the payload and Centaur were withheld, as is usual for NRO launches.

I wrote about this mission in an earlier post. Initially, we thought that this satellite was perhaps a new SDS and would be launched into HEO (a 63-degree inclined 'Molniya orbit'). Subsequent observations of a fuel vent by the Centaur upper stage seen from the western USA four hours after launch did not seem to fit this, and made us speculate whether the payload perhaps was something new and went into a 58 degree inclined MEO (see the discussion at the bottom of this previous post).

The latter speculation turns out to be correct. On November 18, I imaged an object in a 58.5 degree inclined, 11034 x 11067 km Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). It was steady in brightness. The image in top of this post shows the object in a 6-second exposure with a Canon EOS 80D with Samyang 2.0/135 mm lens. 

Observing conditions on this night were very dynamic: at one moment it could be completely clear, then two minutes later completely overcast, and five minutes later completely clear again.

Two night later, on November 20, I imaged a second related object, in a slightly lower 58.8 degree inclined 10510 x 11043 km Medium Earth Orbit.  Below is one of my images:


NROL-101 Centaur RB. Click image to enlarge


This object is slightly variable in brightness, indicating a slow tumble and during it's peaks it is brighter than the first object. The brightness variation has a peak-to-peak period of 140 seconds. Below, the brightness variation can be seen in a 19-image stack:


click to enlarge

A diagram of the measured pixel brightness of the trails in a series of images, shows the mentioned periodicity, and also shows thge presence of a more specular peak at the tops of the curve:

(click diagrams to enlarge)

(note added 24Nov: an update to this curve from video observations, yielding a 138.02 second peak-to-peak period, is here).

For the moment, we interpret the first, steady object in the 58.5 degree inclined orbit as the payload (USA 310), and the second variable object in the 58.8 degree inclined orbit as the Centaur upper stage.

Here is a TLE for the payload, based on a 3.2-day observing arc:


1 46918U 20083A   20326.25970612 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    08
2 46918  58.5335 293.1790 0007646 263.2891  96.6658  3.77323127    09

RMS 0.01     arc Nov 18.17 UT - Nov 21.37 UT

The orbit repeats in a 3-4-3 days pattern.

 

Here is a very preliminary TLE for the Centaur RB, based on a short 43-minute observing arc, hence the values for the eccentricity and Mean Motion still are privisional values:

1 46919U 20083B   20325.05807551 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    07
2 46919  58.8264 292.5498 0070000 327.1858  32.4248  4.01148244    05


 

[update] Here is an updated elset for the Centaur RB based on a 3-day observational arc:

NROL-101 Centaur
1 46919U 20083B   20327.90329491 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    05
2 46919  58.8253 291.9447 0155268 103.5440 258.2387  3.86388179    00

RMS 0.02            arc Nov 0.14 UT - Nov 23.00  UT

 

The preliminary orbits match well with the fuel vent in Northern Saggitarius observed from Joshua Tree, California and Taos, New Mexico, on 14 Nov ~2:30 UT (18:30 local time in Joshus Tree). The positions match to within a few degrees:


click to enlarge [updated figure]





The orbit of USA 310 is decidedly odd. There have never been classified launches in such an orbit before. One commercial object was launched in a somewhat similar orbit (the orbital inclination is lower), the first (and only) of an ill-fated commercial communications network in MEO: ICO F2 (2001-026A) launched in 2001.
 

Click to enlarge [updated image]

 

Because this type of orbit is new for an NRO payload, it is probably something experimental, i.e. a technology demonstrator. We can only guess as to the function, although future orbital behaviour might shed some light. Options include: 

 

- Communications

- SIGINT

- SAR imaging

- Low resolution, wide area optical IMINT

- Space-Based tracking.

 

In seems that the last few years the NRO and associated organisations are experimenting a lot with new, experimental spacecraft and new types of orbit. We have seen a number of launches into ~50-degree LEO orbits for example (e.g. USA 276, and the failed ZUMA launch). Now unusual MEO orbits are added, it seems. It will be interesting to see how this object will behave, and if other payloads will be launched into a similar orbit in the future.

I, for one, welcome these new oddities: when things become too predictable, it gets boring. So yay for the new and unusual! 


ADDED NOTE (24 Nov):
 
Now that  both the payload and the Centaur r/b have been observed over a reasonable arc and the orbits have improved, I can provide an estimate for the separation of the Centaur and payload: 14 Nov ~1:00 UT, near the southern apex of the orbits. This was followed by an avoidance burn and fuel dump by the Centaur, so there is some leeway in this.


click to enlarge


Sunday, 15 November 2020

SM-3 Block IIA Missile Defense test FTM-44 against an ICBM-class target imminent, 17-19 November 2020 [UPDATED]

Click to enlarge. Image: MDA

Three days ago, on 12 November 2020, a Navigational Warning appeared that denoted three hazard zones in the northern Pacific for the period 17 to 19 November, connected to what clearly is some kind of missile test:

 

121041Z NOV 20
NAVAREA XII 509/20(GEN).
EASTERN NORTH PACIFIC.
NORTH PACIFIC.  
1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS 170400Z TO 171000Z NOV, 
   ALTERNATE 0400Z TO 1000Z DAILY 18 AND 19 NOV 
   IN AREAS BOUND BY:
   A. 09-12N 167-43E, 09-01N 167-40E, 
      08-58N 167-43E, 08-58N 167-48W, 
      09-00N 167-59W, 09-30N 168-18E, 
      09-43N 168-04E. 
   B. 11-22N 170-00E, 11-08N 170-10E, 
      11-44N 173-34E, 13-13N 176-53E, 
      15-39N 178-17E, 18-07N 179-23E, 
      18-48N 177-48E, 17-13N 174-19E,
      16-18N 173-08E, 13-08N 171-00E. 
   C. 44-06N 133-00W, 35-00N 131-00W, 
      28-30N 143-30W, 44-06N 140-30W. 
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 191100Z NOV 20.

 

I have plotted the three area's  in the map below. Note that there appears to be a clerical error in the Navigational Warning for two of the positions defining area A: those reading "W" should probably read "E", which results in a hazard area which makes much more sense (in the map below, the original, probably erroneous, shape for area A is depicted in red: what was likely meant in white).

(note added 17 Nov: an update to this Navigational Warning issued as HYDROPAC 3337/20 confirms the clerical error)

click map to enlarge

The location of the areas lead me to believe it points to a Missile Defense test: an attempt to intercept a dummy Ballistic Missile launched from Kwajalein towards the US main land. Area A denotes the immediate launch hazard zone for the dummy ICBM at Kwajalein; area B where the first second stage of the dummy ICBM will come down; area C the intercept area where the SM-3 interceptor will be fired and the intercept occurs.

Based on the location and shape direction of area C, I initially (and erroneously) thought it might be a Ground-Based Midcourse Defense test from one of the GBMD sites in Alaska. However, after some discussion with the Twitter missile community and some digging around, I am now quite confident that this is not a GMBD test, but an AEGIS SM-3 test, with the SM-3 intercept missile fired from a US Navy Destroyer located in the Pacific in the north of area C. Basically, the situation below:

Click to enlarge

(those of you who remember the infamous Operation Burnt Frost will know the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3): it was used to destroy the malfunctioned USA 193 satellite on 20 February 2008)

Indeed, a Missile Defense test with an SM-3 Block IIA missile, designated as test FTM-44, is known to have been originally scheduled in the Pacific for the third quarter of 2020.  It next was postponed due to the impact of the Corona pandemic, to late 2020

The Navigational Warning NAVAREA XII 509/20 that appeared three days ago now suggests that the FTM-44 test is imminent, and will take place between 17 and 19 November with the daily window running from 04:00 to 10:00 UT. The locations and shapes of the hazard zones designated in the Navigational Warning NAVAREA XII 590/20 fit well with what we know about the FTM-44 test (see below).

A US Naval Institute news release from August 2020 includes the following schematic graphic for FTM-44: compare this to the graphics above and note the clear similarity (note that my figure above is a view from the north,while the MDA figure below is a view from the south):


Click to enlarge. Image: MDA

Test FTM-44 will be the first attempt at intercepting an ICBM-class  missile rather than a MRBM, extending the system to include ICBM targets. AEGIS previously only included short- and medium range ballistic targets. From the position of area C, the intercept will take place at a range of about 6500 km from the Kwajalein launch site.

As can be seen from the MDA diagram above,  the test includes the use of Space-Based assets (satellites): the Space-Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS) for the initial detection of the launch of the dummy ICBM from GEO and HEO, and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) for additional tracking of the ICBM missile through midcourse.

Satellites from the STSS system make passes with view of the test area around the following times during the 3-day test window:

Nov 17  ~04:15 UT
Nov 17  ~05:15 UT
Nov 17  ~06:15 UT
Nov 17  ~07:15 UT
Nov 17  ~08:15 UT
Nov 17  ~09:15 UT
Nov 17  ~10:00 UT

Nov 18  ~04:40 UT
Nov 18  ~05:40 UT
Nov 18  ~06:40 UT
Nov 18  ~07:40 UT
Nov 18  ~08:40 UT
Nov 18  ~09:40 UT
Nov 18  ~10:00 UT

Nov 19  ~04:05 UT
Nov 19  ~05:05 UT
Nov 19  ~06:05 UT
Nov 19  ~07:05 UT
Nov 19  ~08:05 UT
Nov 19  ~09:05 UT
Nov 19  ~10:00 UT


The US Naval Institute news release from August 2020 suggests that the FTM-44 SM-3 interceptor will be fired from the USS John Finn. This Arleigh-Burke class Destroyer will probably be located in the northern part of area C from the Navigational Warning.


USS John Finn. Image: US Navy (through Wikimedia)


UPDATE  (17 Nov 11:25 UT):

A news release from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has confirmed that FTM-44 has taken place this morning, and was successful. It states that the target was launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at Kwajalein at 7:50 pm Hawaii Standard Time (=17 Nov 5:50 UT). With an approximately 21 minutes flight time, this should place the intercept near 6:11 UT (17 Nov 2020). [edit: but this assumes a typical ICBM speed, zo there is leeway in this time of intercept]

Between the time of launch and intercept, the STSS DEMO 2 satellite (2009-052B) was well positioned to track the target-ICBM mid-course (note: the position of the Destroyer that fired the SM-3 interceptor missile in the image below, has been assumed):

click image to enlarge

SECOND UPDATE:

Footage from the test has been released and can be seen here on the MDA website.

Graphic simulation of the test on the MDA website.

The MDA footage of the target launch and the MDA simulation linked above, confirm that the target ICBM was launched from 9.0065 N, 167.7270 E.


click to enlarge. Image: Google Earth

Acknowledgement: this blog post benefitted from discussions with Simon Petersen, Scott Lafoy and Ankit Panda.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Crew Dragon-1

click map to enlarge

[Edit 13 Nov 23:25 UT:  due to the weather the launch has been postponed one day to 16 Nov 00:27 UT]

If weather cooperates, SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon-1 for NASA from Cape Canaveral platform 39A on 15 November 00:49 UT 16 November 00:27 UT. Onboard will be be JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi and NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glove. Docking to the ISS will be on 16 Nov 8:57 UT, 8.5 hours after launch. Docking to the ISS will be on 17 November around 4:00 UT

Unfortunately, the time of the launch means that it will not be visible during its pass over Europe some 23 minutes after launch: the pass is completely in earth shadow. In the map above  the dashed line is where the Crew Dragon is in earth shadow, the solid line where it is sun-illuminated. It will not be visible on the second and (for southern Europe) third pass either.

For radio observers: a TLE estimate for the first revolution is on the launchtower.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

NROL-101: probably a HEO mission [or maybe not! See update at bottom]


click map to enlarge


EDIT 4 Nov 2020 22:30 UT: 

post UPDATED with new maps and new value for inclination parking orbit

EDIT 2, 22:50 UT (Nov 4): the launch has been SCRUBBED for at least 48 hours...

EDIT 3, 7 Nov 22: launch is now currently scheduled for 11 Nov, 22:22 UT 

EDIT 4, Nov 13:  NROL-101 cleared the tower at 22:32 UT (Nov 13)


If weather cooperates,ULA will launch NROL-101, a classified payload for the NRO, on November 11 (postponed from November 3 and 4). Based on Navigational Warnings, the launch window is from 22:00 UT (Nov 11) to 02:45UT (Nov 12), with ULA indicating a launch window start at 22:22 UT. 

[ EDIT: eventually, NROL-101 launched on 13 Nov 2020 at 22:32 UT

The launch is from platform 41 on Cape Canaveral, using an Atlas V rocket in 531 configuration (5-m fairing, 3 strap-on boosters, 1 single engine Centaur upper stage). It would have originally flown in 551 configuration but this was changed. It is the first Atlas V flight to feature the new GEM 63 solid fuel strap-on boosters.

This Navigational Warning has appeared in connection to this launch (updated):


062038Z NOV 20
NAVAREA IV 1074/20(GEN).
WESTERN NORTH ATLANTIC.
FLORIDA.
1. HAZARDOUS OPERATIONS, ROCKET LAUNCHING
   112200Z TO 120245Z NOV, ALTERNATE
   122200Z TO 130245Z AND 132200Z TO 140245Z
   IN AREAS BOUND BY:
   A. 28-38-50N 080-37-34W, 29-58-00N 079-28-00W,
      29-54-00N 079-21-00W, 29-34-00N 079-36-00W,
      29-15-00N 079-45-00W, 28-36-00N 080-23-00W,
      28-30-57N 080-33-15W.
   B. 30-01-00N 079-33-00W, 31-08-00N 078-36-00W,
      30-54-00N 078-14-00W, 29-47-00N 079-11-00W.
   C. 36-38-00N 073-35-00W, 39-03-00N 071-00-00W,
      38-30-00N 070-13-00W, 36-05-00N 072-46-00W.
   D. 51-37-00N 049-45-00W, 53-32-00N 044-58-00W,
      52-54-00N 044-15-00W, 51-03-00N 049-07-00W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140345Z NOV 20.
 

The launch azimuth from the location of the hazard zones in this Navigational Warning and the initial launch azimuth depicted in a map tweeted by ULA point to an initial lauch into a [value updated] ~56-degree ~57.75 degree inclined orbit:

 

click map to enlarge

However: this is likely only a temporary parking orbit. The 531 rocket configuration has never been used for a launch into LEO so far, but always for launch into GEO. Given the launch azimuth, NROL-101 will certainly not be launched into GEO. 

So either the payload is destined for LEO but unusually heavy or (more likely) the final orbit aimed for is a HEO orbit (also known as a  Molniya orbit) with inclination ~63 degrees, perigee at ~2000 km over the southern hemisphere and apogee near 37 8000 km over the Arctic. [But: see major update at bottom! It might have been MEO rather than HEO, but this remains uncertain!]

A 63-degree inclined Molniya orbit cannot be reached directly from the Cape, because of overflight restrictions. Hence the initial launch azimuth corresponding to a ~58-degree inclined orbit. If NROL-101 goes into a Molniya orbit, it will do a dog-leg some time after launch, or (more likely) coast in a ~58-degree inclined parking orbit for perhaps several hours before being boosted into a Molniya orbit by the Centaur.

This appears to be underlined by the fact that to date (Sunday Nov 1) no Navigational Warnings have been issued for the reentry area of the Centaur upper stage. This could indicate that the upper stage will be left orbiting in a ~2000 x 37 8000 km transfer orbit, or is disposed into a Heliocentric orbit.

The NRO so far launched three kinds of  satellites into HEO orbits:

1) Data communication satellites (SDS);

2) SIGINT satellites (Trumpet FO);

3) combined SIGINT (Trumpet FO) and SBIRS Early warning satellites.

The last SIGINT/SBIRS combination launched into HEO was USA 278, launched in 2017. The last SDS launch into HEO was USA 198 in 2007 (there was also a launch in 2017 but this was into GEO, not HEO). As Ted Molczan pointed out in  a private com, SIGINT launches into HEO usually were done from Vandenberg, SDS launches from Cape Canaveral. So perhaps NROL-101 will carry a new SDS satellite, but this is far from certain. Radio observations after launch might shed some light on both orbit and payload character.

The initial trajectory will take it over NW Europe some 23 minutes after launch, but in Earth shadow, so the pass will not be visible:


click map to enlarge

 

UPDATE 15 Nov 2020 15:20 UT

Around 2:30 UT on Nov 14, four hours after launch, sightings of a fuel venting event were observed from the western USA.

This image tweeted by  Marc Leatham shows the V-shaped cloud in Saggitarius, imaged from Joshua Tree National Park:



There is also allsky imagery of the fuel cloud from Taos, New Mexico (look low at the horizon where the milky way touches the horizon(right side), for a 'moving' piece of Milky Way. This is the fuel cloud):


These sightings lead us to believe that the payload perhaps went into the lower part of MEO, not HEO. This is however (emphasis) not certain at this moment.

The launch sequence then could have been insertion into a LEO parking orbit; an apogee raising burn; a perigee raising/circularization burn bringing it into HEO; and fuel vent/orbit separation burn by the Centaur rocket. That latter event caused the observed fuel cloud, at about 8500 km altitude.

ULA reported 'mission successful' around 1:48 UT. For the launch provider, their mission is completed upon payload separation. 1.48 UT corresponds to a pass through the southern apex of the orbit, suggesting payload separation was at that point. This, in combinbation with the observed Centaur vent, would argue against insertion into HEO but does fit insertion into MEO.

If my guess is correct, then this should be the approximate orbit (orbital position is the approximate position for the time of the Joshus Tree fuel cloud sighting):


click to enlarge

 

Both the Centaur and payload have been catalogued (but without orbital elements) by CSpOC, as #46918 (2020-083A) USA 310 and #46919 (2020-083B) Atlas V Centaur R/B.

If USA 310 indeed went into HEO, then the identity/character of the payload remains a big guess.


Added note, 4 Nov 2020, 21:30 UT: the maps and inclination of the initial parking orbit have been updated based on a map showing the initial trajectory up to fairing jettison tweeted by ULA boss Tory Bruno.

This post benefitted from discussions with Cees Bassa, Scott Tilley, Ted Molczan and Bob Christy.