Sunday, 14 August 2022

Will China's second 'Space Plane' land on August 15?

Over the past 10 days I have been following the second test flight of China's "Experimental Test Spacecraft" (2022-093A), a.k.a. it's "Space Plane". See also an earlier post.

The 'Space Plane' has been on orbit now for almost 10 days. That is already clearly longer than the first 2-day test flight from 2020. We have no idea how long they intend to fly it this time. It may be two weeks, maybe months, maybe more. We don't know, and will have to see.

However, if it would land within days from now, then my bet is it will be on August 15 near 7:00 UTC.

On that date on that particular pass, if the spacecraft does meanwhile not manoeuver, the 'Space Plane' groundtrack will cross right over the landing strip near Lop Nor where the previous test flight landed. The maps below show the track leading to it, and how the track actually passes over the landing strip (the triangular structure in Copernicus Sentinel image) near 6:57 UTC on August 15:

click map to enlarge

click map to enlarge


NOTE: this post originally also featured a plot of the RAAN evolution of the spacecraft, with what appeared to be a 'wobble', suggesting small corrective manoeuvers.

I deleted the diagram and accompanying text because it turned out that a weird bug in my spreadsheet (Excel) caused it (!). I am still not sure what happened there. Reloading the dataset and then creating a new diagram had the wobbles disappear. Even though it was the same dataset in the same columns of the spreadsheet. 

Thanks to Cees Bassa for noting something was off with the original plot.

Saturday, 6 August 2022

The flyby of USA 326 by Kosmos 2558 on August 4: a post-analysis

click image to enlarge

In a previous post I discussed the launch of Kosmos 2558 (2022-089A), a Russian military satellite which was launched from Plesetsk on August 1, 2022. 

As I pointed out, it was inserted into the same orbital plane as the American classified military satellite USA 326 (2022-009A, an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite launched in February 2022), at an orbital altitude only a few tens of kilometers below it. 

And that was probably no coincidence: Kosmos 25578 is likely an 'inspector' satellite meant to surreptitiously check out USA 326.


click image to enlarge


The two satellites had a relatively close flyby on August 4. I did a post-encounter analysis based on orbits from before and after the flyby, to assess the time and the distance of the flyby.

I find that the close flyby happened near 14:16:27 UTC (August 4, 2022), give or take a few seconds, at a nominal distance of ~67 km. Most of that distance (about 64 km) is in altitude. 

The flyby happened in daylight near 42.3 N, 25.9 W, over the mid-Atlantic, while both objects were southbound. USA 326 was at an altitude of about 518 km at that time, and Kosdmos 2558 at an altitude of about 453km.

Below is an animation of the flyby, as seen from two viewpoints (first lateral, than oblique):


~67 km is a clear safe distance and therefore no cause for worry (although it worried some generals in the Pentagon perhaps), but nevertheless close enough to make it interesting. I strongly suspect that Kosmos 2558 was imaging USA 326 at the time, in an attempt to gather information on the character of the satellite.

The diagram below gives the distance with time between Kosmos 2558 and USA 326 around the time of the approach.

click diagram to enlarge

It will be interesting to follow the two objects and see whether a new flyby happens at some point. In a previous similar case in early 2020, another Kosmos satellite, Kosmos 2542, was sent to check out the US military satellite USA 245, and released a second satellite, kosmos 2543, that chased the US satellite for a while.


Added comment:

Fred Jansen made a pertinent remark: from launch to operational in a mere 3 days would be awfully fast.
Another issue, brought up by Allan Thomson, is that the Sun-Kosmos 2558-USA 326 angle was quite low during this encounter, which is  not ideal.

However, as the two objecst share the same orbital plane, these encounters repeat at intervals: so even if it was not ready and fully operational yet during this approach, there will be other opportunities in the future. It will be interesting to see whether Kosmos 2558 will raise its orbit at some point, or will do other manoeuvres to keep the precession of its RAAN in line with that of USA 326.

(Note: the orbital elements for USA 326 used in this analysis are based on optical tracking data by an international group of  Independent Space Observers, including myself, Cees Bassa and Russel Eberst)

Observing China's Re-usable Test Vehicle (or "space plane")


frame stack. Click to enlarge

On August 4 2022 near 16:00 UTC, China launched a CZ-2F from Jiuquan carrying a "re-usable experimental spacecraft". It is the second orbital test flight of the Chinese 'space plane', China's answer to the X-37B, following an earlier orbital flight in September 2020 (see my 2020 blog post) . In 2020, the craft returned and landed on a landing strip near Lop Nur after two days on orbit.

Above is a frame stack of 76 frames showing the spacecraft and the CZ-2F upper stage from the launch in the evening of 5 August 2022 near 20:10 UTC. The frames are from the video below which I shot from Leiden, the Netherlands, with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme + Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens, in deep twilight (sun at only -6 degrees elevation):



The re-usable experimental spacecraft was launched into a 346 x 593 km, 50-degree inclined orbit. The orbital inclination is similar to the September 2020 test launch: the orbital altitude is however different this time. The 2020 test flight was in a 331 x 347 km orbit: the current flight is in a more eccentric orbit with higher apogee altitude (at almost 600 km, or 250 km higher than in 2020).

click image to enlarge

Eight objects (2022-093A to H) have been catalogued from this launch: the reusable test vehicle itself, the CZ-2F upper stage, four pieces of CZ-2F debris, and two additional objects of unknown character, objects G and H. The latter might be secondary payloads. They could perhaps be test targets to retrieve, or 'inspector' satellites to check the outside of the spacecraft. We'll see what happens. They are apparently small as my camera yesterday only registered the test vehicle and the CZ-2F upper stage.

On the previous flight, multiple objects were catalogued as well: apart from the test vehicle itself and the CZ-2F upper stage, there were - just like now- four pieces of CZ-2F debris catalogued. In addition an object was ejected from the test vehicle some 3.5 hours before the latter landed (speculation at the time was that it might have been an inspector satellite to inspect the outside condition of the spaceplane before the landing). That object reentered in December last year.

For the current test flight, the currently catalogued 8 objects, 2022-093A to 2022-093H, have varying apogee altitudes. The H-object has a notably more circular orbit than the other objects:

click diagram to enlarge

It will be interesting to see how long the orbiter will stay on orbit this time, and whether it will manoeuvre (it did not during the previous test flight). When it lands, we expect that to be at the same landing site as in 2020, a remote landing strip near Lop Nor (see the end of this 2020 post).


[added 7 Aug 2022]

Below is footage of another pass, taken in the evening of 6 August 2022. First object to come into view is the CZ-2F upper stage from the launch; then follows the 'space plane' (plus an airliner).

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

A stalker and its prey (Kosmos 2558 and USA 326)


In my previous post I discussed the newly launched Russian military satellite Kosmos 2558 (2022-089A), that was launched on August 1 into the orbital plane of the US military IMINT satellite USA 326 (2022-009A). There are indications that it is an 'inspector' satellite that is going to take a detailed look at USA 326.

Last night I observed them both, passing about half an hour after each other. Over the enxt 24 hrs Kosmos 2558 will approach USA 326, to a distance of ~75 km on August 4 ~14:47 UTC, if they do not manouvre in the mean time.

Above are framestacks from the captures (in the image with USA 326, a flaring Starlink, Starlink-1349, is also visible, in the lower left corner).

Below is the video footage. It was taken with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme with a Pentax 1.2/50 mm lens at 25 fps.

It will be interesting to follow this Cold war cat-and-mouse game above our heads over the coming days and weeks....



Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Kosmos 2558, a Russian inspector satellite targetting the US IMINT satellite USA 326?


click image to enlarge

On August 1, 2022, at 20:25 UTC, Russia launched a Soyuz 2.1v carrying a military satellite from Plesetsk into a Polar orbit. It has since been catalogued under nr 53323 (COSPAR ID is 2022-089A). It will probably receive the designation Kosmos 2558

Directly after launch it was in a 435 x 452 km, 97.25 degree inclined orbit. The Volga upper stage was catalogued in a 284 x 425 km orbit.

Before the launch, there was a rumour that this was another 'inspector' satellite - a snooping satellite meant to covertly inspect another satellite. After some speculation about the potential target arose, I pointed out that the middle of the launch window as indicated by NOTAM's for the launch, 20:30 UTC, was close to the moment that the orbital plane of the classified US electro-optical IMINT satellite USA 326 (2022-009A) passed over Plesetsk, at 20:25 UTC

And sure enough, it did indeed launch at 20:25 UTC, into the orbital plane of USA 326. And as it turned out, into an orbital altitude that is close as well.

The apparent target, USA 326, was launched in February and is widely believed to be a new generation electro-optical IMINT satellite. It moves in a 97.4 degree inclined, 489 x 518 km sun-synchronous polar orbit. 

The RAAN of the newly launched Kosmos 2558 matches the RAAN of USA 326 closely, with a difference of only 0.04 degree (changing by about 0.01 degree/day). The close correspondance of the two orbital planes can be seen in the diagram above. The orbital altitude of Kosmos 2558 is about 60 km lower than that of USA 326, but that might change if any post-launch manoeuvres are done the coming days and weeks.

With the current orbit, Kosmos 2558 will make a relatively close approach to USA 236 at August 4 near 14:47 UTC. The approach distance is ~75 km, almost all of that (73 km) is in altitude.

 [EDIT: a post-encounter analysis on 6 Aug 2022 based on orbits closer to the approach moment gives 4 August ~14:16:27 UTC for the approach, and a nominal distance of 67 km, most of this in altitude]

In early 2020, Russia did something similar with Kosmos 2542/2543, directing it towards the KH-11 electro-optical reconnaissance satellite USA 245.

It will be interesting to follow both satellites the coming weeks, to see what happens.

Thursday, 28 July 2022

CZ-5B rocket stage 2022-085B: reentry forecasts

 (this post is periodically updated when new tracking data become available and have been analyzed)

last updated 30 July 19:05 UT   

My latest forecast is: 30 July, 17:10 UTC +- 15m

The latest CSpOC forecast was:  30 July, 16:49 UTC +- 10m 

The FINAL CSpOC TIP is 16:51 UTC +- 1m, near 3.4 N, 113 E

A possible reentry observation has been made from Kuching (Sarawak, Borneo) near 16:50 UTC 

Click diagram to enlarge


On 24 July 2022, China launched a CZ-5B rocket carrying the Wentian module to the Chinese Space Station. The huge CZ-5B core stage, 2022-085B, with a dry mass of 18 tons and a length of 33 meter, is now set for an uncontrolled reentry on July 30.

The diagram above shows the evolution of apogee and perigee altitudes so far.

I am running reentry models in the General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT) for the CZ-5B stage, that currently point to reentry in the second half of July 30 UTC. At this point in time it is still too early to pinpoint a more precise time or location - and for this reason I do not give geographic coordinates for the nominal reentry point yet.

The map below shows the current risk area, based on the latest forecast and its uncertainty window. Within the uncertainty window, the rocket stage can come down anywhere on the blue line in the map. The yellow circle is the nominal reentry position, i.e. the center of the uncertainty interval, but not necessarily the most likely location.


Current risk area. Click map to enlarge

Movement of the spacecraft is from west to east = left to right on the map. Cities between 41.5 N and 41.5 S with 1 million or more inhabitants are shown as yellow dots.

Below is a diagram of the evolution of the reentry forecast so far. Below the diagram is the same data in tabular form, with the most recent forecast at the bottom of the table.

- My latest GMAT based forecast (black dots) is: 30 July, 17:10 UTC +- 15 m

- The last pre-reentry CSpOC TIP forecast (red dots) is: 30 July, 16:49 UTC +- 10 m

- The FINAL CSpOC TIP is 16:51 UTC +- 1 m, near 3.4 N, 113 E

The latter time, with its 1 minute uncertainty, and position are likely based on an infra-red detection of the reentry fireball by a SBIRS Early warning satellite. So it seems my last forecast was about 20 minutes off. It reentered more or less at the start of my uncertainty window.

Below is a map with the final revolution and actual reentry location:


click map to enlarge

Each dot is a prediction based on a new orbit release. On the x-axis is the date/time (in decimal days) of the orbit on which the forecast is based. On the y-axis is the predicted reentry time/date resulting from a GMAT model run using  this orbit. These too are given in  decimal days (e.g., "30.5" = "30 July, 12:00 UTC". Note: for dates beyond July 31, "July 32.0" means "August 1, 00:00 UTC" etc.). 

Error bars show the uncertainty in the prediction. Note how the uncertainty window become smaller once we get closer to the reentry.

The black dots are the results of my GMAT model runs. The red dots are predictions by CSpOC, the US Military tracking organization (and "the" authoritive source of orbital tracking data), given for comparison.

click diagrams to enlarge

My reentry modelling in GMAT uses the MSISE90 model atmosphere, current, predicted and past spaceweather, a dry mass of 18000 kg and a drag surface of 62% of the maximum value, which is the best estimate for the average drag surface of a tumbling rocket stage of these dimensions. The depicted uncertainty window is a fixed 20% of the timespan between orbit epoch and the reentry time forecast resulting from the orbit.


GMAT model forecasts:


 25-07 11:52:33    31-07 08:28  +-  28.1 h
 25-07 13:01:55    31-07 02:51  +-  26.8 h
 25-07 14:30:57    31-07 02:42  +-  26.4 h
 25-07 17:29:00    31-07 02:45  +-  25.9 h
 25-07 19:29:01    31-07 02:08  +-  25.3 h
 26-07 03:04:47    31-07 02:39  +-  23.9 h
 26-07 11:16:28    31-07 03:40  +-  22.5 h
 26-07 13:11:03    31-07 02:22  +-  21.8 h
 26-07 15:43:05    31-07 02:34  +-  21.4 h
 26-07 18:40:46    31-07 02:44  +-  20.8 h
 26-07 19:12:28    31-07 01:04  +-  20.4 h
 27-07 14:41:30    30-07 21:29  +-  15.8 h
 27-07 15:55:00    30-07 20:57  +-  15.4 h
 27-07 17:18:31    30-07 21:01  +-  15.1 h 
 27-07 18:20:32    30-07 23:39  +-  15.5 h
 28-07 17:05:39    30-07 23:46  +-  10.9 h
 29-07 01:18:22    30-07 21:36  +-   8.9 h
 29-07 08:55:31    30-07 20:12  +-   7.1 h  
 29-07 13:03:52    30-07 19:20  +-   6.1 h   
 29-07 16:34:29    30-07 18:58  +-   5.3 h  
 29-07 18:00:07    30-07 19:00  +-   5.0 h  
 30-07 01:31:37    30-07 20:06  +-   3.7 h 
 30-07 08:22:22    30-07 17:50  +-   1.9 h  
 30-07 09:54:18    30-07 17:29  +-   1.5 h  
 30-07 12:28:44    30-07 17:28  +-   1.0 h 
 30-07 12:58:01    30-07 17:30  +-    54 m  
 30-07 14:17:27    30-07 17:20  +-    37 m   33 N 126 W  
 30-07 15:48:42    30-07 17:09  +-    16 m   40 N 178 E
 30-07 15:57:24    30-07 17:10  +-    15 m   41 N 173 W  latest


UPDATE 30 July 17:15 UT:

Footage purportedly shot today from Kuching (Sarawak, Borneo) appears to show the reentry of 2022-085B. It would place reentry near ~16:50 UTC. The footage is here, in a tweet by Nazri Suleiman.
I say 'purported' because for the moment the footage has not yet been verified. But it seems likely it is the reentry indeed.


UPDATE 30 July 19:05 UT:

CSpOC gives a final TIP of 16:51 +- 1m UTC near 3.4 N, 113 E, which matches the Kuching sightings well (multiple video's from the Kuching region have since turned up on social media, so it is now quite certain that this was the reentry).

The map below gives the final orbital revolution and location of reentry over Borneo.


click map to enlarge


Other forecast sources:

CSpOC  (

Aerospace Corporation  (

Josep Remis  (

ESA  ( 



Added note on 'Live' satellite tracking websites

BEWARE: contrary to what many people think, purported 'Live' satellite tracking websites such as are NOT showing you satellite locations based on 'live' tracking data!

In reality, they show predictions based on older orbital element sets, that can be hours old actually.

This can be deceptive. They sometimes happily show an object apparently still "on orbit" after it in reality already reentered!

Thursday, 7 July 2022

A failed US missile test on July 7


click to enlarge

In the first week of July, two Navigational Warnings appeared (NAVAREA XII 431/22 and HYDROPAC 1811/22) that indicated an ICBM-type missile test in the Pacific for a multiple day window starting July 7, with launch from Vandenberg AFB in California and target the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein.

These are the Navigational Warnings in question:

030348Z JUL 22
NAVAREA XII 431/22(18,19).
   A. 34-47.00N 120-37.00W, 34-51.00N 120-36.00W,
      34-52.00N 121-25.00W, 34-39.00N 121-25.00W,
      34-40.00N 121-01.00W, 34-47.00N 120-37.00W.
   B. 34-56.00N 123-14.00W, 34-51.00N 123-57.00W,
      34-05.00N 123-49.00W, 34-10.00N 123-06.00W,
      34-56.00N 123-14.00W.
   C. 35-01.00N 124-11.00W, 34-48.00N 126-00.00W,
      33-40.00N 125-47.00W, 33-54.00N 123-59.00W,
      35-01.00N 124-11.00W.
   D. 34-34.00N 128-22.00W, 34-17.00N 130-07.00W,
      33-03.00N 129-49.00W, 33-20.00N 128-05.00W,
      34-34.00N 128-22.00W.
   E. 33-04.00N 136-33.00W, 32-51.00N 137-30.00W,
      31-54.00N 137-11.00W, 32-06.00N 136-15.00W,
      33-04.00N 136-33.00W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 111344Z JUL 22.

030450Z JUL 22
HYDROPAC 1811/22(81).
DNC 12.
   ALTERNATE 080600Z TO 081258Z JUL
   A. 09-16.00N 167-22.00E, 09-23.00N 167-33.00E,
      09-32.00N 167-26.00E, 09-37.00N 167-29.00E,
      09-37.00N 167-45.00E, 09-38.00N 168-00.00E,
      09-37.00N 168-03.00E, 09-07.00N 168-05.00E,
      09-05.00N 168-03.00E, 08-56.00N 167-34.00E.
   B. 08-56.00N 163-29.00E, 09-14.00N 165-41.00E,
      09-03.00N 166-19.00E, 08-18.00N 166-49.00E,
      07-25.00N 166-58.00E, 06-18.00N 166-54.00E,
      06-00.00N 165-11.00E, 06-15.00N 164-09.00E,
      07-30.00N 163-18.00E, 08-10.00N 163-12.00E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 081358Z JUL 22.

The number and geographic locations of the hazard areas indicated to me that this was not a standard Minuteman-III test. In the map below, blue are the hazard areas from the 7 July Area Warnings; red that for a typical Minuteman III test (shown example is the 29 Oct 2020 test). Near California, the number and positions of the hazard areas are clearly different.

click map to enlarge

As it turns out, this indeed was not a Minuteman-III launch, but a test launch of a Minotaur-II with a new experimental reentry vehicle, the Mk21A developed by Lockheed Martin. This warhead is a future  replacement for the W87 warhead on the future LGM-35 Sentinel missile being developed by Northop-Grumman.

The launch at 6:01 UT on July 7, was a failure: according to a press release from Vandenberg, the missile exploded about 11 seconds in flight, starting a fire in the area.

Rearrangements in the USA 328 - 331 'train'


click image to enlarge

In front of the 'train' USA 328 to USA 331 launched last month (see previous posts here and here), things are changing, and objects are being rearranged.  The train is streching out too. It now takes the train almost 6 minutes to pass, and the bright F object is no longer the last trailing object.

On the night of 5/6 July, USA 328 and USA 329 were very close to each other. The image above is a stack of 100 video frames (4 seconds)  showing both objects. The brightness difference of almost 2 magnitudes between (the objects we dubbed) USA 328 and USA 329 was remarkable.

Below is a video of this pass. The footage was made with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme + Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens.  The two objects were some 2 km apart in reality.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Observing newly launched USA 328, USA 329, USA 330, USA 331 and a Falcon 9 debris piece

The video footage above which I shot last night shows the classified objects covertly launched with the commercial Globalstar FM15 satellite on June 19 (see my previous post for backgrounds).

The objects are four payloads and a piece of Falcon 9 debris: USA 328 (2022-064B), USA 329 (2022-064C), USA 330 (2022-064D), and USA 331 (2022-064E), and they form a small 'train' with the piece of  Falcon 9 debris (2022-064F) trailing the four at a slightly larger distance. 


click image to enlarge (updated image)


The image above [updated] shows the distances between the objects when they were over the Netherlands on June 22, 00:53 UT.

On June 20/21, 19 hours after launch, both Cees Bassa and me first picked them up, at more or less the same time, when we both did a planescan for the newly launched objects, using my estimated orbit here. They were a few minutes early on predictions, but pretty much on-track.

The payloads are faint, around magnitude +7 to +8: the Falcon 9 debris piece is much brighter, around magnitude +3.5 to +4.


Above is a frame-stack from video footage from that night. I used a Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens (I choose it because of its wide field of view), which with hindsight was not powerfull enough, so the four payloads were barely visible in the video: but the framestack nevertheless gives a good indication of the grouping of the objects (the Falcon 9 debris piece, F,  was still reasonably close that night - it is slowly getting away from the payload group).

The next night, June 21/22, I used a more powerful lens, a Samyang 1.4/85 mm. This time all objects registered well, as can be seen in the video in top of this post. 

Below are two frame-stacks from the second of  two passes imaged with video that night, showing the 'train' of four payloads:

The second payload in the train ("USA 329") shows a slow but notable brightness variation, which can be noted in the video in top of this post, and also in the framestacks: note how it is fainter than the other objects in the first stack, and brighter in the second stack. This could indicate that it is tumbling. The other objects appear steady so far.

As can be seen in the framestacks, the payload 'train' seems divided into two subgroups (or pairs).

The payloads are in 520 x 531 km, 53.0 degree inlined orbits. The piece of Falcon 9 debris is in a 513 x 538 km orbit (these values might still change somewhat when future observations are added: they are based on a one-day arc). 

The orbit is clearly lower than the ~1111 x 1125 km orbit of Globalstar FM15, and the orbital inclination differs by one degree from the latter orbit.

click image to enlarge

Provisional orbital elements for all five objects, based on observations by Cees Bassa and me from three imaged passes on two consecitive nights (June 20/21 and 21/22):


USA 328                                                  520 x 531 km
1 52889U 22064B   22173.02277179 0.00000885  00000-0  48598-4 0    08
2 52889  53.0076 219.0756 0008275 266.6022  93.4023 15.13589607    07

rms 0.013 deg      22 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

USA 329                                                  519 x 531 km
1 52890U 22064C   22173.02278172 0.00000889  00000-0  48818-4 0    03
2 52890  53.0020 219.0447 0008904 282.2135  77.7858 15.13589477    09

rms 0.018 deg      18 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

USA 330                                                  519 x 531 km
1 52891U 22064D   22173.02280361 0.00000956  00000-0  52537-4 0    05
2 52891  52.9994 219.0247 0008947 287.7569  72.2446 15.13572484    07

rms 0.012 deg      22 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

USA 331                                                  520 x 531 km
1 52892U 22064E   22173.02281812 0.00000893  00000-0  49073-4 0    09
2 52892  53.0012 219.0348 0008303 279.7321  80.2731 15.13564015    03

rms 0.010 deg      22 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

FALCON 9 DEB                                             513 x 538 km
1 52893U 22064F   22173.02296837 0.00000882  00000-0  48416-4 0    01
2 52893  52.9956 219.0143 0018707 315.9409  44.0091 15.13486695    05

rms 0.016 deg      27 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

Monday, 20 June 2022

A covert launch on June 19? [UPDATED]


click map to enlarge

On 19 June 2022 at 4:27 UT, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral pad 40 ostensibly carrying a Globalstar block II communications satellite, Globalstar-2 FM15

However, something was odd about this launch, and rumour has it that it covertly launched a second unacknowledged payload for the US Government. [UPDATE: now confirmed. And it are actually 4 payloads!]

This payload, if it exists, was seemingly released into a lower orbit than the Globalstar payload eventually was, possibly (as suggested by Cosmic Penguin on Twitter) at ~535 km (the Globalstar satellite was subsequently released at a much higher  ~1125 km altitude). It likely is in the same 52-degree inclined orbital plane as the Globalstar satellite. 

At ~535 km and with ~52 degree orbital inclination, this means the covert payload is hiding near the forest of Starlink satellites, which orbit at around ~550 km in 53-degree inclined orbits, only slightly higher in orbital altitude and 1 degree higher in orbital inclination.

The oddities with the launch that gave rise to the rumour are listed in this article. Given the mass of a Globalstar satellite and capacity of a Falcon 9, there was no need to have the first stage land on a droneship downrange in the Atlantic Ocean, rather than have it return to land at Cape Canaveral. This suggests it might have carried a heavier payload (e.g., because a second covert payload was on board), which lead to the rumours.

And then, just before the Globalstar deployment, live in-flight footage was shown (screenshot below) that showed something odd: the Globalstar satellite (still attached to the payload adapter on top of the rocket stage) and what looks like a second, empty payload adapter.


click image to enlarge

So this gives credence to the suspicion of a covert deployment of a second satellite in a lower orbit, before deployment of the Globalstar payload into a higher orbit.

The live webcast made no mention of such a second payload: after initial orbit insertion of the Falcon 9 some 10.5 minutes after launch, merely a long 'coasting phase' was suggested (with no live footage during this coasting period), before an orbit raising burn 1 hour 5 minutes after launch (~5:33 UT) , followed by a circulation burn 1 hour 47 minutes after launch (~6:14 UT) and deployment of the Globalstar satellite at 1h 53 minutes after launch (6:20 UT).

At the moment the live feed cut out after reaching orbit, the Falcon 9 seemed to be in a coasting orbit at ~535 km altitude. If there was a covert second payload, it was likely released at this altitude, either just after orbit insertion of the Falcon 9 upper stage slightly over 10 minutes after launch, or just before the orbit raising burn at about an hour after launch. The latter burn, at about ~5:33 UT, was to raise the Falcon 9 plus payload to the orbital altitude of the Globalstar satellite. It was followed some 40 minutes later by a brief orbit circularization burn, at ~6.14 UT.


click map to enlarge


The orbit circularization burn at ~6:14 UT and deorbit burn after 6:20 UT happened over the central and eastern United States and caused a spectacle in the sky, with a 'smoke ring' (probably from the circularization burn) followed by a bright fuzzy cloud (probably the start of the deorbit burn).

This footage of the sky events related to the circularization burn and deorbit burn was made by Dan Bush in Albany, Missouri:

More images can be seen on the site here. Some very nice images which can be seen here were taken by Lick Observatory telescope operator Keith Wandry.

Spectacular views were also seen an hour later over New Zealand, where the Falcon 9 upper stage tank depressurization (fuel vent) in anticipation of the deorbit over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii caused the by now familiar, spectacular bright 'spiral' cloud in the sky typical for Falcon 9 upper stage fuel vents (e.g. see an earlier similar event here, connected to the ill-fated Zuma launch in 2018). Imagery of the spiral cloud can be seen here.

In terms of the potential orbit of the covert payload, if it exists: a lot is uncertain, but I offer this very rough search orbit: [EDIT: updated orbits based on observations here]

UNKNOWN    launched with Globalstar FM15
1 70001U 22999A   22170.18541667  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    02
2 70001 052.0000 230.1696 0001447 047.8547 325.7015 15.10393460    00


UPDATE 1 (20 June 20:45 UT):

The CSpOC catalogue list 4 (four) additional objects for this launch (all with orbital elements witheld):
USA 328, USA 329, USA 330 and USA 331 (catalogue nrs 52889 to 52892).

UPDATE 2 (23 June 10:00 UT):

We are tracking the objects from the launch, see this follow up post. One of the four payloads seems to be tumbling.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Some personal news: Lecturer in optical Space Situational Awareness

I have some personal news to report. 

As of June 1, I have been appointed as Lecturer in optical Space Situational Awareness at Delft Technical University (TU Delft), in the section Astrodynamics and Space Missions of their Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. It is, at my own request, a part-time appointment (0.5 fte).

This is what my new workplace looks like (my new office is in the towering building in the background):

click image to enlarge

Optical SSA will be a new addition to the MSc teaching curriculum at the Aerospace Engineering faculty. So we will have to start from the ground up. I will closely cooperate with a second newly hired person, who will start in August.

Apart from teaching, there is also room for research. Among the topics I personally want to pursue in my new position, are XGEO, and object characterization. I also plan to include some work on NEA's if possible, and it would be nice if I could bring some Space Archaeology into the teaching curriculum as well. We'll see.

I will leave my position as SSA consultant at Leiden Observatory (the astronomy dept. of Leiden University) on July 1, but will continue close cooperations with my Leiden colleagues.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Observing the Boeing CST-100 Starliner OFT-2 and the ISS just hours before docking.


click image to enlarge

The image above shows the International Space Station ISS (the brightest trail) beying chased by the Boeing CST-100 Starliner OFT-2 (the fainter trail), in evening twilight of May 20, some 4 hours before docking of the two objects.

The image was taken with a Canon EOS 80D fitted with a Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens set at F2.0, and is a 1-second exposure at ISO 200, taken in deep evening twilight (sun at -8 degrees below the horizon). The Coma Berenices star cluster is visible at lower left. The very faint satellite just left of the image center is the European weather satellite METOP-C (2018-087A).

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner is the much plagued crew-rated vehicle that is the second US post-Shuttle spaceraft capable of transferring crew to and from the ISS.  

Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) was launched on 19 May 2022 from Cape Canaveral in Florida with an Atlas V rocket. It docked to the ISS on 21 May 2022 at 00:28 UT. It is the first successful flight test of the vehicle, following the drama of OFT-1 in December 2019 and several postponements of the OFT-2 flight following reviews into the cause of the failures in 2019. It was uncrewed during this test flight.

I observed two visible passes last night, one in deep evening twilight around 20:36 UT (22:36 CEST), some 4 hours before docking, and a second near 22:12 UT (00:12 CEST), some 2 hours before docking. The imagery with this blog post is from the first, twilight pass.

During the first pass the two objects were both visible with the naked eye (even in strong twilight): the ISS of course being very bright, and the Starliner as a fainter object of magnitude +2 to +1 just behind it. The two objects chasing each other made for a very fine sight!

Below is a video I shot with a Canon EOS 80D and Samyang 1.4/35 mm set at F2.0, during the 20:36 UT pass, showing the pair descending to the eastern horizon, with the Starliner just behind ISS (watch it full-screen, it is a HD video):


At about 00:12 in the video, another fast moving object, briefly flaring brightly, is visible in the lower right corner, above the chimney. This is a left-over piece of hardware (the "trunk", 2021-103B) from the Crew Dragon Endurance mission. It was making its last few revolutions around earth, reentering later that night at 3:48 UT over the NE Pacific.

Below is a 140-frame stack of the relevant part of the video. Note how the trail of the Crew Dragon debris (trunk) at right is clearly longer than that of ISS and Starliner, due to it being in a much lower orbit (~150 km, versus ~420 km for ISS and Starliner) and hence moving faster over the sky. It briefly flared brightly, as can be seen:

click image to enlarge

Below is another image of the Starliner - ISS duo, this time a 1/4th second exposure separating them a bit better:


click image to enlarge


During the second pass at 22:12 UT, the Starliner and ISS were even closer. They were no longer separable as distinct objects by the naked eye or in my camera imagery: but they were two distinct objects in 10 x 50 binoculars, very close together, the Starliner this time just in front of the ISS. Their real separation distance at that time was in the order of 100 meters. It was a spectacular view!

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner will undock from the ISS and return to earth for a parachute landing on May 25.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Kosmos 482: questions around a failed Venera lander from 1972 still orbiting Earth (but not for long)

I have just published a new article in The Space Review. It is freely accessible here.

It is titled "Kosmos 482: questions around a failed Venera lander from 1972 still orbiting Earth (but not for long)".

It is an in-depth look at the recent controversy surrounding 1972-023E, the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft, a piece of hardware from a 1972 Soviet era Venera mission to Venus that failed and got stuck in Earth Orbit.

In it, I think I can conclusively answer several questions around this object, including that it is the 'descent craft' in its protective spherical shell only, rather than a substantial larger piece of Venera hardware as thought by some.

The article includes evidence from my own observations (photometry); comparisons of actual orbital evolution with long-term orbital simulations with the General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT) for various objects associated to this launch; as well as radar cross sections published by CSpOC and LeoLabs. I also provide a new reentry forecast for 1972-023E

Read the article here on the website of The Space Review

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

USA 327 / NROL-85

The video above which I shot yesterday evening (19 April 2022) shows USA 327, the NROL-85 payload, passing over my home in Leiden, slightly over two days after it was launched. The footage was shot with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme Low Light Level CCTV camera with a Canon FD 1.8/50 mm lens fitted.

NROL-85 (see two previous posts about this very recent classified launch here and here) has now been catalogued (with orbital elements witheld) by CSpOC as USA 327, catalogue nr 52259, COSPAR ID 2022-040A. Only one object was catalogued, there was no spoof second 'debris' object entered.

As already mentioned in a recent post, the fact that there is no second object is a big surprise. We expected NROL-85 to deliver two payloads, a pair of INTRUDER (also known as NOSS, which stands for Naval Ocean Surveillance System), SIGINT satellites used for geolocating shipping on the High Seas by means of time difference of arrival of their radar/radio emmisions.

Before 2001, NOSS systems existed of three co-orbiting satellites forming a thight triangular formation. From 2001 onwards (with the launch of NOSS 3-1, the first of the Block 3 NOSS-es) , this changed into two co-orbitting satellites.

(the video below, from 30 August 2018, shows a typical NOSS pair, in this case both briefly flaring due to a favourable sun-satellite-observer angle on some reflecting part of the satellites. While operational, NOSS pairs always move this close together. The NOSS pair in question is  NOSS 3-6, the same NOSS pair into which orbital plane the new USA 327 satellite was launched).

And now, we have only one, not two, satellite launched in a NOSS-like orbit. Analysts are scratching their heads over this.

Given the strong similarity in orbit, and the fact that it was launched into the orbital plane of an existing 10-year-old NOSS pair (see previous post), NOSS 3-6 (2012-048A & P), there is clearly some conceptual link of the new satellite to the NOSS program

But in what way exactly? There are a couple of options:

(1) This is a new generation of NOSS/INTRUDER, (i.e. NOSS block 4-1), that needs only one satellite;

(2) This is something else, something new, but related to NOSS/INTRUDER;

(3) This was meant to be NOSS 3-9, a regular NOSS pair, but something went wrong and the second satellite was not deployed;

(4) There is a second satellite but it is small (cubesat) and not yet detected;

(5) The second satellite still has to detach from the first


So let us briefly comment on these various options:

Option (1) apparently, is feasible, according to some. Apparently it is possible to do TDA using just one satellite

With regard to option (2), the most interesting one, one could think of for example an optical or radar counterpart to the existing NOSS 3-6 SIGINT pair: one that images the ships geolocated by NOSS 3-6. This makes sense (and it also makes sense that the new satellite orbits half an orbit apart from the NOSS pair).

While we cannot exclude option (3), I think it is not the most likely option. The same goes for option (5): with previous NOSS launches, two objects were detected right after launch. I have no opinion on option (4).

If we look at the current orbit of USA 327 and the orbit of the NOSS 3-6 pair, we note that: 

(a) they move in almost the same orbital plane; 

(b) they currently are almost exactly half an orbital revolution apart (see illustration below); 

(c) because of the latter difference in Mean Anomaly, their ground tracks are not the same but have some distance between them.


click map to enlarge

Observation (c) does not entirely make sense to me. Wouldn't you want your imaging satellite to follow the same ground track as the geolocating SIGINT satellites? On the other hand: true: the footprints are large enough to cover a large overlap in ocean space from both groundtracks. But still....

Another aspect of this that does not completely make sense to me is that, if USA 327 is a technology demonstrator for a new complementary IMINT mode to the NOSS SIGINT system, then why pick a 10-year-old, nearly retired pair of NOSS satellites to test it with? Why not pick a fresher pair, so you can happily experiment away for the time to come?

But maybe, those fresher pairs of NOSS satellites are deemed more suited for when, after this technology demonstration, the truely operational system is deployed. But then again, why bother with that, just replace the technology demonstrator with the operational version and deorbit the technology demonstrator.

Questions, so many questions, and my still post-COVID impaired brain cannot make much sense of it yet...

It will be interesting to see what USA 327 does (in terms of orbital manoeuvres etcetera) the coming months.

Meanwhile, Radio observer Scott Tilley in Canada has detected the first S-band radio signals from USA 327. He reports "huge fades in signal", which is odd. From Cees Bassa I understand that the frequency in question, 2277.5 MHz, is a know frequency used during the checkout-phase of NOSS 3-x pairs.

A surprisingly bright flare from a 6U Cubesat

​The 240 frames frame stack above, which is from the video below, shows the classified Japanese satellite IGS Optical 5 (2015-015A). But at 21:14:05.5 UT, somethings else moving nearly parallel to the satellite briefly flares up.

The flaring object in question, producing a flare of at least magnitude 0, is TYVAK 182A (also known as ELO Alpha), 2021-034D. This is a 6U cubesat. I am quite surprised to see such a bright flare from such a small object!

The video was taken from Leiden, the Netherlands, with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme fitted with a Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens.

Monday, 18 April 2022

NROL-85 observed, but is it an INTRUDER/NOSS or something else? [UPDATED]

click image to enlarge


Yesterday 17 April 2022 at 13:13 UT, SpaceX launched the classified NROL-85 mission for the NRO. Before the launch we widely expected this to be NOSS 3-9, a new pair of INTRUDER/NOSS satellites (see previous post), based on clues as to the orbit it was launched into. 

The orbital inclination and orbital altitude suggested by OSINT infornation on the mission were typical for NOSS/INTRUDER, and the time of launch indicated a launch into the orbital plane of the 10-year-old NOSS duo NOSS 3-6. That is a pattern we have seen before with NOSS missions: a replacement launched into the same orbital plane after 10 years of operational service.

So we expected to observe two objects after launch. 

But NROL-85 had a surprise in store: so far, we detected only one object, not the expected two!

This leads to the question: is NROL-85 a new INTRUDER/NOSS, or not?

NROL-85 was first picked up by me, from Leiden, the Netherlands, some 7 hours after launch, in late evening twilight of 17 April around 19:59 UT (21:59 CEST). It was some 2.5 minutes early on my pre-launch estimated search elset. I subsequently also observed it on a second pass two hours later.

On the first pass, I captured it photographically (see image in top of this post, showing it above the roof of my house along with two old unrelated rocket stages), using a Canon EOS 80D with a Samyang 1.4/35 mm wide angle lens (the exposure is a 2-second exposure at ISO 800). The video system I had set up captured it too, but only very briefly in a corner of the field of view. Only one object was seen, nothwithstanding that I did a photographic plane scan during quite some time.

The second pass was in the northern sky with a less favourable phase angle (so the object was much fainter than during the first pass). I captured it with the video system, and after following it for a minute or so, left the camera stationary to look for a possible second object. None was detected, either before or after the detected object.

Likewise, fellow observers from the Seesat-L list including David Brierley and Eelke Visser, detected only one object too. And Scott Tilley reports that he did not detect radio signals at the frequencies usually used by NOSS.

The absence of a second object could mean that NROL-85 is not a new INTRUDER/NOSS mission after all, but something else, although the orbit is very NOSS-like.

Alternatively, perhaps it is an improved version of INTRUDER that now needs only one satellite, rather than two.

NOSS missions once consisted of three satellites orbiting close together in a triangular formation. In 2001 this changed to two satellites. Maybe now they found a way to do it with one satellite?

The object we detected is in a 1021 x 1191 km, 63.5 degree inclined orbit (update: with a longer observational arc constraining the eccentricity of the orbit better, the new value is ~ 1008  x 1207 km). This orbit is close to the specifications given in a launch contract tender for NROL-85. Below is a preliminary initial elset based on a 5.5 hour observational arc:

NROL-85 (USA 327)
1 70002U 22999A   22108.04497945 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    07
2 70002  63.5043 123.5866 0114230 185.9890 173.9785 13.40421486    07

rms 0.024 deg

Elset update (20 April 2022): Below is the latest elset based on 114 observations by Cees Bassa, Eelke Visser, David Brearley, Andriy Makeyev and me over a two-day observational arc:

USA 327 (NROL-85)                                      1008 x 1207 km
1 52259U 22040A   22109.98456423 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    08
2 52259  63.4462 118.5572 0132890 178.9713 181.1610 13.40467640    01

rms 0.011 deg    arc Apr 17.83 UT - Apr 20.01 UT


click to enlarge

As a final note: the post-deorbit-burn fuel vent by the Falcon 9 upper stage used for the launch of NROL-85, which was deorbitted over the Pacific Ocean at the end of the first revolution (see map in previous post), was seen and filmed from Hawaii, showing the characteristic spiral shape:


(a follow-up post is here)