Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Two-and-a-half months after the Indian ASAT test: What's Up?

On 27 March 2019, India conducted it's first succesful Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test, destroying Microsat-R on orbit. I have blogged on this before here, here, here and here; and published a detailed OSINT analysis of this test in The Diplomat, in which I have shown that the Indian version of events concerning this ASAT test is not entirely correct.

So what is the current situation? The Indian government claimed right after the test that 45 days after the test, the space debris generated by the ASAT test would be gone. We are now a month after that deadline. Is everything gone indeed? Far from it.

Some 92 larger debris pieces resulting from the test have been catalogued by CSpOC. Of these, 56,  i.e. some 60% were still on orbit 45 days after the ASAT test. And 46 (that is 50%) were still in orbit on June 15, one full month after all should have been gone according to the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). These numbers are in line with my earlier forecast here.

The diagrams below visualize these data, including (grey lines) a new forecast for the remainder of the debris still orbiting. The top diagram is the cumulative percentage of reentered debris from the test, the lower diagram gives the number of objects reentering per week.

click diagram to enlarge
click diagram to enlarge

Many of these objects still on-orbit have apogees still well into the range of operational satellites, i.e. they remain a threat to other objects in space. In my current forecast for these remaining objects, at least 5 objects will stay in orbit for at least a year to come, and the last one might not reenter until mid-2021. So clearly, Indian DRDO estimates were much too optimistic.

click diagram to enlarge

Saturday, 1 June 2019

[UPDATED] Erratic orbital evolution of four Starlink objects

Edit 5 June 2019: updated at end of post with new data

During a talk at MIT on May 29, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell reportedly mentioned that four of the 60 Starlink objects launched on May 24 are having issues (but she reportedly also said that these four are in contact with SpaceX  ground control: i.e. it is too early to consider these four objects a failure).

These four objects are probably object J, AA, AG and AQ. Their orbital evolution so far stands out from the rest of the objects: while 56 objects have gone up, these four either stayed near the altitude of orbit insertion, or are in fact going down.

This can be cleearly seen in these two diagrams I made today, showing the total amount of altitude gained for each object. Objects J, AA, AG and AQ (red) clearly stand out form the rest (black).

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The other four objects (blue) that did not raise their orbit, are the 'FALCON 9 DEB' objects (with DEB standing for 'debris'. These are four support bars that held the satellite stack together untill deployment. Our observations show that these four are tumbling, as they can be seen flashing in a regular pattern.

Two of these support bars can be seen as fainter flashing objects at about 25 seconds into my video from May 24th (the other two were filmed as well, moving somewhat in front of the "train", but are not in the video I posted):

UPDATE 5 June 2019:

 One of the four objects, object AA, has come to life and is raising orbit now. Objects AG, AQ and J have not changed:

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Numbers: the SpaceX Starlink constellation in perspective with what is currently orbiting earth

click to enlarge

The image above was taken by me in the evening of May 28 with a Canon EOS 60D and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens. It shows a part of the now already dispersing "train" of SpaceX Starlink objects. They briefly flared, one by one, while passing north of Corona Borealis.

In this post, I want to put in perspective what adding 12000 Starlink objects to the current population of satellites orbiting Earth means.

Quite some numbers are floating about in articles and on internet, concerning current numbers of objects orbiting Earth. I made a tally this morning, including both classified and unclassified objects. Datasources were the database of classified objects maintained by Mike McCants; CSpOC's satellite catalogue for all unclassified objects; and the UCS Satellite database for the number of operational satellites. Numbers given in the diagrams in this post are rounded numbers.

A number of  "44000" is floating around the internet regarding the number of objects orbiting earth currently. This figure is wrong: CSpOC is tracking some 23000 objects of which some 18000 are well-tracked and can be indentified as to origin. This excludes, of course, objects that are not well-tracked, or are not tracked at all (e.g. because they are very small), the exact number of which is unknown. In the remainder of this post, we will restrict us to the ones that are known. These are generally objects larger than 10 cm.

In addition, our amateur network tracks some 300 additional "classified" objects.

The "44000" figure comes from the fact that the catalogue numbers (the unique identifiers given to each object) have now added up to 44306 entries: however, this concerns all objects catalogued since 1957, including many objects that have since re-entered into the atmosphere.

So the correct number to go with for objects currently in orbit around Earth and well-tracked, is slightly over 18300 objects.

Of these 18300, about 5500 are payloads, both operational and defunct. The UCS database currently lists some 2000 operational payloads, leaving 3500 defunct payloads.

In addition to operational and defunct payloads, there are some 2000 spent rocket boosters orbiting our planet. The remainder, almost 11000 objects, concerns other space debris (including sometimes very small objects, only detectable by radar).

Here I have visualized these basic data in the form of a pie-diagram:

click to enlarge

So, in perspective to these numbers for the current population of Earth-orbiting objects, what will be the result of the addition of  the 12000 planned objects in the Starlink constellation? How does their number compare to the other objects?

In the pie diagram below, you can see that adding 12000 Starlink objects would mean they would represent about one third of all objects orbiting Earth:

click to enlarge

In the diagram, I have lumped payloads and rocket stages as these generally represent larger objects, and put the rest into "other debris". The latter category includes very small objects, fragments from exploded rocket stages and disintegrated satellites. The diagram includes objects in geostationary orbit.

Starlink will operate in Low Earth Orbit. Musk's plan is to launch 1600 satellites to an operational altitude of 550 km; another 2800 to an operational altitude of 1150 km; and a whopping 7500 to an operational altitude of 340 km.

click to enlarge

When we only count objects with a perigee below 1150 km, the topmost orbital altitude shell of the proposed Starlink constellation, there are currently some 13800 objects orbiting up to these altitudes. Adding 12000 Starlink objects would almost double the population total.

click to enlarge

When we only count objects with a perigee below 550 km, which includes the lower and middle of the three orbital altitude shells of the proposed constellation, some 2900 objects are currently orbiting up to these altitudes. Adding almost 9100 Starlink objects (the sum of the lower and middle shell objects), would mean that about three quarter of the resulting population would be Starlink satellites (!).

click to enlarge

In other words: the amount of objects added by Starlink, compared to the current population of objects, is certainly significant, especially where it concerns the lower parts of Low Earth Orbit.

Below 550 km, the population would increase to three times as much as currently - and this includes all very small debris pieces that can only be observed by radar in the tally. If we restrict the comparison to the larger objects, it means an at least five times increase in object number. That is truely significant.

With these massive additions by just one company, the question arises whether some kind of regulation is in order, e.g. through the UN. If not, we allow one company to, basically, take over and massively dominate Low Earth Orbit. There are all kinds of ramifications: like, will current Space Tracking Networks be able to deal with the increased detection load on their networks? (if not, space will become less safe).  What will this do to our night sky? Etcetera.

(with regard as to what might be the effect to our night sky, I refer to this twitter tread by Cees Bassa, who has cracked some numbers as to visibility)

It seems to me that the World, the international community as a whole instead of one US corporation,  should have some say into this. I am otherwise a fan of Elon Musk, who undoubtedly has given space exploration and space technology a new impetus and good shake-up: but concerning Starlink, this all seems not well thought out to me.

The Starlink "train" on 28 May 2019. Click to enlarge

Saturday, 25 May 2019

WOWOWOW!!!! A SPECTACULAR view of the SpaceX Starlink satellite train!

On 24 May 2019 at 2:30 UT, SpaceX launched STARLINK, a series of 60 satellites that is the first launch of many that will create a large constellation of satellites meant to provide global internet access.

Just short of a day after the launch, near 22:55 UT on May 24, this resulted in a spectacular view over NW Europe, when a "train" of bright satellites, all moving close together in a line, moved across the sky. It rained UFO reports as a result, and the press picked it up as well.

There were no orbital elements for the objects available yet on Space-Track, but based on the orbital information (53 degree inclination, initially 440 km orbital altitude) I had calculated a search orbit and stood ready with my camera.

My search orbit turned out to be not too bad: very close in sky track, and with the objects passing some 3 minutes early on the predictions. And what a SPECTACULAR view it was!

It started with two faint, flashing objects moving into the field of view. Then, a few tens of seconds later, my jaw dropped as the "train" entered the field of view. I could not help shouting "OAAAAAH!!!!" (followed by a few expletives...).

Here is the video I shot, be prepared to be mind-blown!

The video was shot, in a partly clouded sky, with a WATEC 902H low-light-level surveillance camera, equipped with a Canon FD 1.8/50 mm lens. I could count at least 56 objects in the original video.

Over the coming days the "train" of objects will be making 2-3 passes each night. As they are actively manoeuvering with their ion thrusters, they will be more spread out with each pass, so the "train" will probably quickly dissipate.

The objects were launched into a ~440 km altitude, 53 degree inclined orbit. Using their ion thrusters, they will raise their orbits to ~550 km the coming days/weeks.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Orbital Reflector has joined the Dark Side

image: Nevada Museum of Art

Orbital Reflector will not shine brightly in our night sky. The extraordinary Art project by Trevor Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art (see my earlier post here) has run on the cliffs of American politics, and was sadly lost as a result.

In a May 1 press announcement by the Nevada Museum of Art, it was indicated that contact with the satellite has been lost, so the command to inflate the balloon can no longer be sent.

That command should have been sent weeks ago, but was postponed because of, basically, the childish state of US politics. The satellite operators needed to have FCC approval to inflate the balloon: approval that should have been given after enough space had been created between the various payloads of the SSO-A launch.

But then, as the Nevada Museum of Art press release puts it:

"two unanticipated events occurred: 1) Due to the unprecedented number of satellites on the rocket, the U.S. Air Force was unable to distinguish between them and could not assign tracking numbers to many of the them. Without a tracking number to verify location and position, the FCC could not give approval for inflation; and 2) The FCC was unavailable to move forward quickly due to the U.S. government shutdown."

The US Government shutdown referred to was the US Federal shutdown imposed by President Trump, when US Congress did not agree to his proposed spending bill for 2019 (notably, the demand for $5.7 billion in funding for his proposed Border Wall). The shutdown lasted until the end of January 2019 (the longest Federal shutdown ever) and affected the functioning of several Federal agencies including the FCC.

As Trevor himself put it recently:

"We needed to coordinate with the FCC to deploy the reflector, but there was no one to take our calls: there was no government".

In the weeks immediately after the SSO-A launch, the Orbital Reflector operators were in radio contact with the satellite. But over time, the radio pings became weaker and by the time the Federal shutdown was finally over and the FCC had resumed functioning again, the radio of Orbital Reflector had fallen silent.

I am very sad about this outcome. I had looked forward to observing and tracking Orbital Reflector, both to admire it as an unusual global piece of art, and to see how its orbital evolution over time would (or would not) match my earlier modelling. I am also sad because I know how much time, energy and thought Trevor, who is a personal friend, has put into this art project, one of his most challenging so far. It is a pitty it worked out this way, even more so because it happened just because of petty US politics, not flaws in the concept.

But even though the original plan was ruined due to a President that was trying to blackmail Congress into submission, Orbital Reflector still serves a goal. One of the goals of Orbital Reflector, besides being seen, was to trigger debate about who owns space, what does and does not belong there, and who gets to decide about that. That debate certainly happened around Orbital Reflector (see a previous post). In that sense, Orbital reflector was a success.

I also like how Orbital Reflector, which was meant to be the very opposite of the dark shady, anonymous and unseen use of space by the military, now has joined the Dark Side itself: unseen, but there, orbiting in anonymity, and in this state as a result of geopolitical power play the effects of which reach all the way into space.

In a way, Orbital Reflector now has become a symbol of how geopolitical powerplay corrupts everything, even Space, which in a  way was the very thing it was intended to make people think about. That's art for you, even if this developed in a way that was not quite foreseen.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Why India's ASAT test was reckless (updated)

Today, I published a large article in The Diplomat:

"Why India’s ASAT Test Was Reckless. Publicly available data contradicts official Indian assertions about its first anti-satellite test"

The paper is online here: https://thediplomat.com/2019/05/why-indias-asat-test-was-reckless/

Summary - In this paper, I present an OSINT analysis of data available from Indian and US sources. From missile telemetry data visible in a DRDO released video (!) I reconstruct the last 2.7 seconds of the missile's trajectory relative to the trajectory of Microsat-R, showing that the missile hit the satellite under a clear upwards angle. I also discuss what can be gleaned from the orbital elements of the 84 debris pieces tracked so far.

The main conclusion is that the ASAT test was conducted in a less responsible way than originally claimed by the Indian government. First, the missile hit the target satellite on a clear upwards angle, rather than “head-on” as claimed by DRDO. Second and third, the test generated debris with much longer orbital lifetimes (up to 10 times longer), which ended up at much higher altitudes than the Indian government is willing to admit.

As much as 79 percent of the larger debris fragments tracked have apogee altitudes at or above the orbit of the International Space Station. Most of the tracked debris generated by the test orbits between 300 km and 900 km altitude, well into the range of typical orbital altitudes for satellites in Low Earth Orbit. As these debris fragments are in polar orbits, they are a potential threat to satellites in all orbital inclinations at these altitudes.This threat will persist for up to half a year (rather than the 45 days claimed by the Indian government), with a few fragments lingering on (much) longer, up to almost two years.

UPDATE, 2 May 2019:

On Twitter, I was asked to elucidate a bit more on how I did the analysis.

The delta V calculations have been done using equations from chapter 6 of "Space Mission Analysis and Design", third edition (Wetz and Larson (eds.), 1999).

The missile trajectory relative to the satellite trajectory was calculated with quite simple goniometry from the telemetry values (azimuth, range and elevation from the camera site) extracted from the DRDO video. Azimuth and range allow to calculate delta X, delta Y relative to the camera site on the flat reference plane. Elevation and range allow to calculate altitudes above the reference plane. AS the calculations are done with respect to a flat reference plane tangent to the earth surface at the camera location, this approach is sufficient. Earth curvature and true altitudes above the earth surface are irrelevant, a we are only interested in relative postions with regard to the satellite vector of movement.

Friday, 5 April 2019

First debris pieces from the Indian ASAT test of 27 March catalogued

click to enlarge

Today the first 57 orbital element sets for Microsat-r debris, debris from the Indian ASAT test on March 27, appeared on CSpOC's data-portal Space-Track (I have posted on aspects of this Indian ASAT test earlier: here, here and here). They have catalogue numbers 44117 - 44173. The analysis below is based on these orbital element sets.The elements confirm what we already knew: that Microsat-r (2019-006A) was the target of the ASAT test.

The image above plots the orbit of the 57 debris fragments, in red. The white orbit is the orbit of the International Space Station ISS, as a reference. Below is a Gabbard diagram of the debris pieces, plotting their perigee and apogee values against their obital period. The grey dashed line gives the orbital altitude of the ISS, as a reference:

click diagram to enlarge

Again, it is well visible that a large number of the 57 fragments (80% actually) have apogee altitudes above the orbit of the ISS, well into the altitude range of operational satellites. This again shows (see an earlier post) that even low-altitude ASAT tests on orbiting objects, creates debris that reaches (much) higher altitudes. The highest apogee amongst the 57 debris pieces is that of 2019-006AR at 2248 km.

Below is the apogee altitude distribution as a bargraph (including a kernel density curve), again showing how pieces do reach the altitudes of operational satellites:

click diagram to enlarge

Most of the created debris in the current sample of tracked larger debris has apogee altitudes between 400 and 700 km. It is interesting to compare this to a similar diagram for debris from the 2008 US ASAT demonstration on USA 193, "Operation Burnt Frost":

click diagram to enlarge

The Operation Burnt Frost debris distribution peaked at a somewhat lower apogee altitude, ~250 km (the same orbital altitude as the target, USA 193) while the peak of the Indian ASAT debris apogee distribution is higher, ~400-500 km (there could however be detector bias involved here).

It is interesting to note that both distributions appear to be double-peaked, both having a secondary peak near 700-800 km. I remain cautious however, as that could be due to detector bias.

Overall, the two distributions are similar, as I already expected.

The question now is, how long this debris will survive. To gain some insight into the expected lifetimes, I used Alan Pickup's SatEvo software to make a reentry forecast for the debris fragments. It suggests that most of the debris will stay on orbit for several weeks to months: by half a year from now, most of it should be gone however, except for a few lingering pieces. Note that this forecast should be taken with some caution: it assumes a constant solar activity at the current level, and takes the NDOT values of the element sets face value.

The following bar diagram charts the forecast number of debris objects reentering per week (the x-axis being the number of weeks after the ASAT test) resulting from the SatEvo analysis:

click diagram to enlarge

Again, the result is quite similar to the actual lifetimes displayed by the USA 193 debris fragments after Operation Burnt Frost in 2008 (see an earlier post, with the same diagram), as expected:

click diagram to enlarge

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Why even low altitude ASAT intercepts are a threat to operational satellites in higher orbits

Click diagram to enlarge. Orbital data from CSpOC

So how big a threat is this Indian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test of 27 March to operational satellites at higher altitudes, given that it was performed at relatively low altitude (283 km, see an earlier post)?

In an earlier post, I noted that the US ASAT demo on USA 193 ("Operation Burnt Frost") in February 2008 was a good analogue (read here why). Like the March 27 Indian ASAT test on Microsat-r, the USA 193 ASAT demonstration happened at relatively low altitude, even lower than the Indian test: 247 km. So where did debris from that test end up, altitude-wise?

The diagram above is a so-called "Gabbard Diagram" which plots apogee and perigee altitudes of individual debris fragments from the 2008 USA 193 intercept against their orbital period. (apogee is the highest point in its elliptical orbit, perigee the lowest point). The diagram can be of help to show insight into how high fragments are ejected in an ASAT test. Please do note that it concerns a subset of well-tracked larger fragments: most of the smaller fraction of debris, difficult or impossible to track, is absent from this sample.

As is visible in the diagram, many fragments ended up being ejected into highly eccentric ("elliptical") orbits with apogee, the highest point in their orbit, well above the intercept altitude. Many ended up with apogee altitudes well into the range of operational satellites (typically 400+ km).

I have indicated the International Space Station (ISS) orbital altitude (its current perigee altitude at ~407 km, not that of 2008) as a reference. Some 64% of the larger fragments in the pictured sample ended up with perigees apogees (well) above that of the ISS. Quite a number of them even breached 1000 km altitude.

This makes clear that even low altitude ASAT tests generate quite some debris fragments that can endanger satellites at higher altitudes. True, most of it reenters within hours to a few days of the test, but still plenty remain that do not. In my earlier post I showed the orbital lifetime of these same fragments from the USA 193 ASAT demonstration. Many survived on orbit for several weeks to months, occasionally even up to almost two years after the test:

click diagram to enlarge

So it is clear that a "harmless" low altitude ASAT test on an orbital object does not exist (note that I say orbital and not sub-orbital). Every test generates a threat to satellites at operational altitudes. Hence NASA administrator Bridenstine was quite right in his recent condemnation of the test. It is indeed very likely that debris fragments ended up in orbits with apogee at or above the orbital altitude of the ISS and other operational satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

An earlier, failed (?) ASAT test by India on 12 February 2019

image: DRDO

In my previous two posts (here and here), I analysed the much discussed Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test by India taking out Microsat-r on 27 March 2019.  Now the story gets a new twist.

Yesterday, Ankit Panda had a scoop in The Diplomat: it turns out that India attempted an ASAT intercept earlier, on February 12, 2019, which ostensibly failed according to US government sources.

Ankit is well sourced within the US Government, and his sources told him that a missile launch was observed on February 12th, which reportedly failed 30 seconds after lift-off.

A NOTAM and Area Warning had been given out for that day by the Indian government, for the "launch of an experimental flight vehicle" (the latter detail mentioned in the NOTAM but not the Maritime Area Warning). The Indian Government later published a bulletin omitting any reference to a missile failure, instead suggesting the succesful test of an "interceptor missile", launched from Abdul Kalam island, against an "electronic target".

 HYDROPAC 448/2019 (63,71)
(Cancelled by HYDROPAC 485/2019)

DNC 03.
   20-48.07N 087-02.23E, 18-07.27N 086-25.02E,
   01-46.62N 087-30.51E, 02-57.91N 093-50.49E,
   18-33.79N 088-46.21E, 20-48.95N 087-06.99E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140745Z FEB 19.

( 080903Z FEB 2019 )

The hazard area from the Area Warning for Feb 12 is very similar to that of the March 27th ASAT test. Compare these two maps, for February 12 and March 27 (the track shown is the groundtrack of Microsat-r, the target of the March 27 ASAT test. The blue and red areas indicated, are the hazard areas from the Area Warnings):

February 12 Area warning and Microsat-r track
March 27 Area Warning and Microsat-r track.

The hazard areas are virtually indistinguishable, and so is the location of the Microsat-r ground track. Microsat-r clearly was the target ("electronic" or not) of the February 12 attempt as well. Even the pass times are close for both dates: compared to March 27, the Microsat-r pass over Abdul Kalam happend about 1 minute earlier on Feb 12. With the benefit of hindsight, it is all very clear.

Indeed, press reports based on the mentioned Indian Government bulletin give 11:10 am Indian Standard Time (05:40 UT) as the time for the Feb 12 attempt. From the listed time, we can deduce that the virtual intercept would have happend at 271 km altitude, some 12 km lower than the 283 km altitude of the succesful March 27 intercept.

Microsat-r was in a slightly different orbit on February 12th: a slightly more eccentric, but stable 240 x 300 km orbit. During the succesful ASAT test of March 27, Microsat-r was in a slightly more circular 260 x 285 km orbit.

click diagram to enlarge

An open question is whether the February 12 attempt was a rehearsal and not a real attempt to hit and kill the satellite; or if it was a real attempt but failed. If Ankit Panda's US government sources are correct that the missile failed 30 seconds after lift-off, it would seem a failure, unless the cut-off after 30 seconds was intentional. Another open question is whether the US government was aware on February 12 that it was an ASAT test (see also this Twitter thread by Brian Weeden).

With the February 12th attempt so soon after launch of Microsat-r (January 24th), it would appear that Microsat-r was specifically launched to function as an ASAT target.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Debris from India's ASAT test: how long until it is gone?

click diagram to enlarge

After India's ASAT test on 27 March 2019, on which I wrote in detail in my previous post, many people asked the obvious question related to the debris threat from this test: how long would debris pieces stay on-orbit?

At the moment of writing (late 31 March 2019), no orbits for debris pieces have been published yet, although CSpOC has said they are tracking some 250 pieces of debris currently.

Some insight into the possible lifetimes of debris fragments can however be gleaned from the debris generated by "Operation Burnt Frost", the destruction with an SM-3 missile of the malfunctioned USA 193 satellite by the United States of America on 21 February 2008.

The USA 193 ASAT demonstration in 2008 provides a reasonably good analogue for the Indian ASAT test on Microsat-r on March 27. The orbital altitudes are somewhat comparable: USA 193 moved in a ~245 x 255 km orbit and was intercepted at ~247 km altitude. Microsat-r moved in a ~260 x 285 km orbit and was intercepted at 283 km altitude, i.e. a difference of ~36 km in altitude compared to USA 193. Both intercepts happened in years with low solar activity, i.e. similar upper atmospheric conditions. There are some differences too: USA 193 was intercepted near perigee of its orbit, Microsat-r near apogee. There is a difference in orbital inclination as well: 58.5 degrees for USA 193, and a 96.6 degree inclined polar orbit for Microsat-r. Nevertheless, the USA 193 intercept is a good analogue: much more so than the Chinese Fengyun-1C ASAT in 2007, which was at a much higher altitude and yielded much longer lived debris fragments as a result.

CSpOC has orbital data available for 174 debris fragments from USA 193. I mapped the decay dates of these fragments and constructed this diagram. The x-axis of the diagram shows you the number of weeks after the destruction of USA 193, and the bars show you how many fragments reentered that week:

click diagram to enlarge

The distribution of reentry dates shows that most fragments reentered within two months, with a peak about 3 weeks after the destruction of USA 193. Almost all of it was gone within half a year. Yet, a few fragments ejected into higher orbits had much longer orbital lifetimes, up to almost two years. This shows that even low altitude ASAT tests on objects in Earth orbit do create at least a few fragments with longer orbital lifetimes.

The 174 debris fragments in question constitute a subset of larger, well-tracked particles within the USA 193 debris population. There were thousands more fragments, most very small, that were not (well) detected. Most of these likely reentered within hours to a few days after the destruction of  USA 193, given that small fragments have a large area-to-mass ratio (meaning their orbits decay faster, as they are more sensitive to drag).

Given the similarities, we can expect a similar pattern as the diagram above for debris fragments from the Indian ASAT test. As the Indian intercept occured slightly (about 35 km) higher, fragments might perhaps last a little bit - but probably not that much - longer.

UPDATE (2 April 2019):
A follow-on post with an analysis or orbital altitudes of generated debris can be read here.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

India's surprise ASAT test of 27 March 2019 (updated)

Click to enlarge. Reconstruction made with STK.

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise announcement in the morning of 27 March 2019, claiming that India conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test that night under the codename "Mission Shakti".

In the hours after the announcement, some sparse details appeared in Government statements and the Indian press: these included that the launch of the interceptor took place from Abdul Kalam island on the Indian East Coast, and the target was intercepted at an altitude of ~300 km. The missile used was a three-staged missile with two solid fuel boosters. The target satellite was not identified, other than that it was an Indian satellite.

T.S. Kelso, @Dutchspace on twitter and myself were however able to identify the target as being likely Microsat-r (2019-006A), a 740 kg Indian military satellite launched two months earlier, on 24 January 2019, on PLSV-C44 from Satish Dhawan Space Centre. We were also able to determine that the test must have happened near 5:40 UT (27 March 2019).

There are only two Indian satellites that fit an orbital altitude of ~300 km: Microsat-r (2019-006A) and Microsat-TD (2018-004T). Of these, Microsat-r was in a very low orbit (roughly 260 x 285 km). It would also pass right over Abdul Kalam island around 5:42 UT on 27 March 2019.

A Maritime Area Warning for "Hazardous operations" was given out before the test, which in hindsight is likely related to the test:


 DNC 03.
 20-48.06N 087-02.24E, 18-07.27N 086-25.03E,
 01-46.62N 087-30.52E, 02-57.91N 093-50.49E,
 18-33.79N 088-46.21E, 20-48.95N 087-06.99E.
 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 300930Z MAR 19.//

 Authority: NAVAREA VIII 248/19 221002Z MAR 19.

 Date: 222130Z MAR 19
 Cancel: 30093000 Mar 19

Plotted on a map, it defines an elongated conical hazard area with the tip at Abdul Kalam island. The hazard area fits an object in a polar orbit. Moreover, it exactly fits the track of Microsat-r:

click map to enlarge
click map to enlarge

The fit shows that the intercept might have occured near 5:40 UT, give or take a few minutes, at 283 km altitude while Microsat-r was northbound moving towards Abdul Kalam island. The fit to the hazard area is excellent.

Microsat-r was launched by PLSV-C44 on 24 January 2019, ostensibly as a military earth observation satellite. The satellite was initially in a 240 x 300 km orbit but manoeuvered into a more circular, less eccentric ~260 x 285 km late February.

PLSV-C44 (including Microsat-r) launch. Photo: ISRO

click illustration to enlarge

click diagram to enlarge
click diagram to enlarge

With this ASAT test, India joins a very small number of countries who have shown to have ASAT capabilities: the USA, Russia, and China. The test will certainly cause uneasiness with several countries and provoke diplomatic reactions and condemnation. This is technology many countries do not like to see proliferate, and testing ASAT weapons in space is widely seen as irresponsible, because of the large number of debris particles it generates on orbit, debris that can be a threat to other satellites. Our modern society is highly reliant on satellite technologies, so any threat to satellites (either from ASAT test debris, or by deliberate ASAT targetting) is a serious threat.

In this case, because of the low altitude of the target satellite, the debris threat will be limited (but not zero). Few satellites orbit at this altitude (the ISS for example orbits over 100 km higher). The vast majority of debris generated will quickly reenter into the earth atmosphere, most of it within only a few weeks. But previous ASAT tests like the Chinese Fengyun 1C intercept in 2007 and the USA's response to that, "Operation Burnt Frost" destroying the malfunctioned spy satellite USA 193 in 2008, have shown that a few debris pieces will be ejected into higher orbits, so even at this low altitude the danger of such a test is not zero. Nevertheless, the Indian government seems to have learned from the outcry following China's 2007 test, and they specifically point out the lower altitude of their intercept target, and the lower risk stemming from that.

As to the "why" of the test, there are several answers, some of which can be read in this excellent twitter thread by Brian Weeden. One reason is military posturing towards China. Another one, as Brian points out, is the current emerging call to restrict ASAT tests: India perhaps wanted to have a test in before these calls result in international treaties prohibiting them. Last but not least, the test could perhaps also be a first step towards an anti-ballistic missile system. [edit 30 Mar 2019: ] India already tested an anti-ballistic missile system before, and this can be seen as a next step in building such a  missile defense system.

UPDATE 30 March 2019:

In the press, on twitter and in a message on the Space-Track portal, CSpOC has indicated it is now tracking more than 250 debris pieces from the ASAT test. So far, no orbital elements for debris pieces have been released however.

They also confirm the time of the test as 5:39 UT. In this article, it is indicated that the launch and intercept was detected by US Early Warning satellites, i.e. the SBIRS system of infrared satellites that has been discussed several times previously on this blog.

clickimage to enlarge

click to enlarge

05:39 UT corresponds to the time the satellite first appears over the horizon as seen from the interceptor launch site at Abdul Kalam island: theoretical appearance over the horizon as seen from that site was at 05:38:38 UT.

So I assume the 05:39 UT time corresponds to the moment the interceptor was launched after first detection of the target (assuming a detecting radar located on the launch site), at a range of 8700 km. Indian sources say the intercept, from launch to impact, took 3 minutes. This would place the actual intercept at ~05:42 UT, near 17.68 N, 87.65 E, at an altitude of ~283.5 km and a range of ~450 km from the launch site.

Click to enlarge. Reconstruction made with STK.

The interceptor was a three-staged missile with a kinetic kill vehicle, i.e. a kill vehicle that smashes into the satellite, destroying it by the force of impact. The Indian Dept. of Defense released this image of the launch of the interceptor:

click image to enlarge

Note (31 March 2019): a follow up post discussing likely orbital lifetimes of fragments created, can be read here.

Note 2 (2 April 2019): a second follow up post discussing an earlier failed attempt on February 12, can be read here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

No, the failed Venus lander from Kosmos 482 is not about to come down yet

Venera landing craft (photo: NASA)

Late February 2019, a number of news outlets (e.g. here and here) copied a story that originally appeared on Space.com, titled: "Failed 1970s Venus Probe Could Crash to Earth This Year".

It concerned an unusual object launched 47 years ago, called the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft (1972-023E, CSpOC nr 6073). Word was that it was about to reenter into the atmosphere, maybe even this year.  But will it?  Short answer: almost certainly not.

The source of the prediction is attributed to Thomas Dorman in the Space.com article, but how the prediction was done is not clear from the news coverage. On the request of David Dickinson, who was preparing an article on the topic for Universe Today, I made my own assessment of the issue. I looked at the orbital decay of 1972-023E since 1973 and did some GMAT modelling to gain insight into how the orbital decay will develop in the future.

As I will show in this post, my modelling suggests the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft is not to come down yet for several years.

Kosmos 482, a failed Venera mission

During the 1960-ies and '70-ies, the Soviet Union launched a number of Venera space probes destined for the planet Venus. Some of these probes did reach Venus and even briefly took pictures before succumbing to the very hostile atmospheric environment on this planet. But not all of the probes reached Venus. Several attempts went awry.

Kosmos 482, a probe similar to and launched only a few days after the Venera 8 probe, was launched from Baikonur on 31 March 1972. Reaching a highly elliptic parking orbit around Earth, its apogee kick motor failed to put it into an heliocentric orbit. The space probe broke up into at least four pieces that remained in Low Earth Orbit. Two of these, parts of the rocket engine, reentered within weeks of the failure. Another piece, presumably the main space probe bus, reentered in 1981.

A fourth piece, 1972-023E, is left on orbit, and it is interesting, as it most likely concerns the Descent Craft, the lander module in its protective cover that was to land on Venus, similar to the Venera lander module imaged in the photograph in the top of this post. That makes this a highly interesting object, as it will likely survive reentry into the atmosphere (it was designed to survive reentry into Venus' atmosphere after all).

Orbital decay 1973-2019

Initially stuck in a highly elliptic ~9600 x 220 km, 52.25 degree inclined orbit 47 years ago, its orbit has since decayed considerably. Currently (March 2019) it is in a ~2400 x 202 km, 52.05 degree inclined orbit:

click to enlarge

The diagram below shows how the apogee and perigee changed between January 1973 and March 2019. The orbit has become markedly less eccentric. Orbital decay strongly acted on the apogee altitude. The apogee altitude (blue line in the diagram) has come down steadily and by a large amount, from ~9600 km to 2397 km.This lowering of the apogee is to continue over the coming years. By contrast, the perigee altitude (red line) has changed only minimally, from 210 to 202 km over the past 46 years.

click diagram to enlarge

The apogee altitude will continue to come down. Once it is below ~1000 km, in combination with the low perigee at ~200 km. decay will go progressively fast.

Modelling future orbital decay

To gain insight into the validity of the claim that object 1972-023E might reenter this year, I modelled the future decay of the orbit using General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT) software. Modelling was done for a 495 kg semi-spherical lander module 1 meter in size, using the MSISE90 model atmosphere.

The result suggests that the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft still has at least 5 to 7 years left on orbit. My model has it nominally reenter late 2025. Taking into account the uncertainties, a reentry between late 2024 and late 2026 seems most likely. That is still several years away.

click diagram to enlarge
click diagram to enlarge

The model result fits well with the trend in the actual tracking data, which gives confidence in the results (the thick lines in the diagrams above are actual tracking data, the thinner lines the GMAT modelled future orbital decay. The latter extend the previous trend in the tracking data well, there are no clear pattern breaks).

It should be well noted that modelling the decay of highly elliptic orbits with high apogee and low perigee is notoriously difficult. Yet, both the past and current orbital parameters and my modelling forecast do lead me to think a reentry is not imminent.

I am not the only one casting some doubt on a reentry of 1972-023E this year. Both NBCnews and Newsweek quote earlier results by Pavel Shubin that predict reentry around 2025-2026, quite similar to my results. They also quote well-known and respected space analyst Jonathan McDowell who is similarly opting for a reentry several years into the future, rather than the coming year.


From my look at the current orbital decay rate and my modelling of future orbital decay, supported by assessments from other sources, it appears that the newsreports suggesting that the reentry of the Kosmos 482 descent craft is imminent and might even occur this year, are in error.

As to the why of the discrepancy: in the Space.com article, Dorman is quoted claiming "Our guess is maybe as much as 40 to 50 percent of the upper spacecraft bus may still be there". It is not clear at all what this "guess" is based on. My own modelling shows that the mass and size of the landing module only (i.e. without other parts still attached), fits the current orbital decay rather well. It is not clear how Thomas reached his conclusion, but modelling with a wrong mass and/or size might explain the discrepancy between my result and that claimed in the Space.com article.

I am hesitant with regard to accepting the high resolution imaging attempts by Ralph Vandebergh featuring in the Space.com article as evidence for object 1972-023E being more than the lander module only, as the weak and rather irregular protrusions visible might be image artefacts from atmospheric unrest and camera shake rather than real structure. Even when telescopically imaged at minimal range in perigee, we are talking about apparent object sizes at the arcsecond level and single pixel level here, conditions under which it is very challenging to image detail. Under such challenging conditions, spurious image artefacts are easily introduced.

Acknowledgement: I thank David Dickinson for encouraging me to probe this issue.