Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Falcon 9 reentry burn from SAOCOM 1A launch observed from Europe

image (c) Koen Miskotte. Used with permission
click image to enlarge
On 8 October 2018 (7 October local time) at 2:21 UT, SpaceX launched the Argentinian Radar surveillance satellite SAOCOM 1A (2018-076A) in a sun-synchronous ~620 km orbit. The launch took place from launch platform 4 at Vandenberg in California. It was a spectacular launch, yielding spectacular launch images.

An hour later, near 03:40 UT, a bright fuzzy blue object travelling through the sky was seen from northern Europe.

This fuzzy phenomena was the Falcon 9 rocket stage (the 2nd stage) form this launch performing its re-entry burn while passing through apogee, lowering perigee such that it would reenter into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean southeast of Hawaii near 04:13 UT, at the end of it's first revolution.

The image above is part of an image taken by a photographic all-sky meteor camera in Ermelo, the Netherlands, operated by Koen Miskotte. It is actually a stack of 4 separate images (hence the three short breaks in the trail), of 88 seconds exposure each, taken between 03:39:30 and 03:45:28 UT on Oct 8, 2018. The bright blue fuzzy streak above the treeline is well visible.

The map below shows the trajectory of SAOCOM 1A during the first revolution. It passed over eastern Europe around 03:40 UT (in making this map I used the orbit of the payload as a proxy, as there are no orbital elements of the rocket stage. At this stage of the launch, the rocket stage will have been close to the payload in a similar orbit).

The map also depicts the deorbit area near Hawaii. The deorbit burn initiating the de-orbit happens about half a revolution earlier (some 45 minutes before reentry) in apogee of the orbit, i.e. over Europe:

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A surveillance camera from a weather station in SüderLügum in Germany, near the German-Danish border, produced this spectacular time-lapse movie of the event (note the "puffs when the rocket engine is firing):

The sky map below shows the trajectory for SAOCOM 1A for Ermelo, the location of Koen Miskotte's alls ky camera (times are in CEST = UT +2). The full all sky image is given as comparison. The two match well:

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image (c) Koen Miskotte. Used with permission
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Thursday, 27 September 2018

More images of Kounotori (HTV) 7

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The image above is a stack (combination) of six images, taken at 10-second intervals with a 5-second exposure (Canon EOS 60D + EF 2.0/35 mm, 800 ISO). It shows Kounotori HTV 7 (2018-073A), a Japanese cargoship on its way to the ISS launched on September 22. This image was taken some 17 hours before it berthed to the ISS.

The cargoship was about 1m 38s behind the ISS at the time of observation. As no recent orbital elements were available, I did not know where to expect it relative to the ISS, so I started watching well before the ISS pass, and next noted it ascending over the roof just after the ISS had disappeared in Earth shadow.

The HTV 7 spacecraft was very bright during this pass: near magnitude +1, and a very easy naked eye object. Just like the day before (see an earlier post), it flared brightly, to at least mag -1/-2 at 19:50:18 UT (26 Sep 2018). The flare can be seen on the composite image above, and on the single image from this series below:

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Also note the distinct orange colour of the trail, which is due to the fact that HTV 7 is wrapped in gold-coloured insulation foil.

The flare happened while HTV 7 was passing through the field of view of my video setup:

The image below is a composite of the images taken while the ISS passed, and the images of HTV 7 passing 1m 38s later (i.e., they didn't move this close in the sky in reality!). The orange colour of HTV 7 stands out. Also well visible is that HTV 7 was somewhat faster than the ISS, due to a difference in orbital altitude (and hence orbital period):

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Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Imaging a pass of Kounotori (HTV) 7 on it's way to the ISS

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On 22 September 2018 (and after several launch delays, amongst others due to a typhoon), at 17:52:27 UT, Japan's Space Agency JAXA launched Kounotori (HTV) 7, a cargoship destined for the ISS. It will dock to the ISS tomorrow on September 27th.

The 9.8 x 4.4 meter HTV (HTV stands for "H-II Transfer Vehicle". The name Kounotori stands for "white stork") are easily visible, bright objects with a distinct orange colour due to the use of gold-coloured insulation foils.  See the image below of HTV 7 being assembled at the Test and Assembly Building at Tanegashima Space Center before launch:

image: JAXA

After days with bad weather, the sky cleared yesterday. I had a low pass in the southwest near 19:18 UT (Sep 25) and went to the nearby city moat with my camera, as I have a better view lower at the horizon there. Some whisps of thin clouds still lingered in the sky.

First, at 19:04 UT, I watched HTV 7's destination, the International Space Station (ISS), sail past as a very bright object. The image below is a stitch of two image stacks (!): one stack of two images, and a stack of 4 images with the camera FOV shifted horizontally. Camera: Canon EOS 60D with an EF 2.0/35 mm lens. I used exposures of 4 seconds at ISO 800.

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Then  I waited for HTV 7. As the latest orbital elements at that point were almost a day old, I was not sure about the exact time it would show up.

Some 14 minutes after the ISS it emerged, clearing the trees and houses low at the southwest horizon, and to my surprise and joy featured a bright flare to at least magnitude -1. My first image just captured the end of this brief flare (first of the two images below):

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The object was easily visible with the naked eye and had an orange hue. The image stack below was made of 5 images taken at 10-second intervals, with each image a 4-second exposure (camera details the same as for the ISS image). It shows HTV 7 from the bright flare to the moment it disappeared in the Earth's shadow:

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Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Capturing a flaring NOSS duo (NOSS 3-6)

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On 30 August 2018 near 20:59 UT I was imaging the NOSS 3-6 duo (2012-048A & 2012-048P) during a near-zenith pass, when they briefly flared. They were at a sky elevation of 77.5 degrees at that time.

The image above is a stack of the video frames showing the flaring spacecraft: the flare of the leading P component was captured just before it peaked (I was adjusting the camera FOV during the seconds before it), the flare of the A component was captured in its entirety. Below is the video itself from which these frames were extracted (video shot with a WATEC 902H + Canon FD 1.8/50 mm lens):

I next used LiMovie to analyse the video and extract brightness curves from the video frames, with the following results. The data points shown are 3-point averages of the raw data. small discontinuities visible in the curves are where the satellite passed a star:

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The leading P component seems to exibit only one flare peak. The traling A component shows an interesting  double or tripple peak. The centroids of the peaks of the P and A component were some 6.5 seconds apart.

In the diagram below, I have transposed both curves on each other by shifting the curve for the A component along both axes untill it matches that of the P component:

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What can be seen is that the curve for the A component pre- and post-peak follows the pattern of that of the P component, but unlike the P component it shows a pronounced valley at the peak, with a small secondary peak in the valley bottom. The shape of the valley is the inverse of the peak shape of the P component. Intriguing!

The rather sudden change in steepness some seconds before and after the peaks as shown by both components is interesting too. The main peak shape is slightly asymmetric.

One option for the difference in the shape of the curve for the A component (i.e. for the "valley"at the top) might be the presence of a rotating component interfering with the flare pattern caused by the satellite body, perhaps.

NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) satellites are SIGINT satellites operated by the US Navy to locate shipping, based on geolocation of the ship's radio emissions. They are also known by the code name INTRUDER. They always operate in close pairs, such as can be seen on the video.

The P component peaked at 20:59:11.85 UT (Aug 30, 2018), at position RA 313.222 DEC +45.628. The A component has a first major peak at 20:59:17.33 UT at RA  313.331 DEC +45.077; the small secondary peak at 20:59:18.37 UT at RA 313.765 DEC +45.307; and a third major peak at 20:59:19.33 UT at RA 314.170  DEC +45.518. The two major peaks are 2.0 seconds apart.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The X-37B OTV 5 is manoeuvering to a higher orbit

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The image above shows the classified robottic X-37B space-plane OTV 5 of the US Air Force, a kind of unmanned mini Space Shuttle, in the sky above my home on August 20. It had manoeuvered in the previous days (probably on August 17 or 18), from an approximately 316 km orbital altitude to 325 km orbital altitude, an orbit raise of ~9-10 km. The video below shows it the next night, passing through Delphinus:

Just two days later, on August 22, OTV 5 was a no-show, indicating another, and major manoeuvre. Three days later, Leo Barhorst found it again, and subsequent observations showed it to had moved into a 387 x 395 km orbit. A total orbital raise of some 75 km in series of manoeuvers spanning a few days.

As can be seen in the diagram below, which is based on amateur tracking data, the orbit of OTV 5 had been rather steady from when Cees Bassa first located it in late April 2018 up to mid August, at an orbital altitude of ~316 km. The orbital raises mid and late August to ~325 km and next to ~391 km could point to a new test regime for the experimental equipment onboard.

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The X-37B (image: US Air Force). Click to enlarge

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

OT: the bright fireball of 29 June 2018, 21:30:14 UT

image (c) Felix Bettonvil, Utrecht. Click to enlarge

Barely two weeks after an earlier brilliant twilight fireball discussed in a previous post appeared over the Netherlands, another bright fireball was observed, again in bright evening twilight. This fireball of about magnitude -6 occurred on 29 June 2018 at  21:30:14 UT (23:30:14 local time). It had a duration of over 3.6 seconds.

The fireball was photographically well covered this time, as it was captured by six all-sky meteor cameras (Borne, Bussloo, Dwingeloo, Ermelo, Utrecht and Wilderen) plus by an amateur astronomer from Kerkrade who was making a time lapse of the night sky. The image above (courtesy of Felix Bettonvil)  shows the fireball as it appeared over the camera station in Utrecht. Almost literally right over it: the lateral distance between the camera position and the nominal ground projected meteor trajectory is only 185 meters!

As several stations were equipped with an electronic or rotating shutter in front of the lens (see the interuptions in the trail in the image above, at 10 breaks/second), there is speed information for this fireball as well. In fact, it delivered a very fine deceleration curve (data from stations Borne, Utrecht and Dwingeloo), showing how the meteoroid rapidly slowed down upon entry into the atmosphere due to friction with the atmosphere:

click diagram to enlarge

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The fireball entered from the south-southeast with a  speed of 21.5 km/s and under a low 27 degree entry angle. It first became visible at 80 km altitude over the Betuwe area near 5.416 E, 51.822 N. It ended at 43 km altitude over the western suburbs of Amsterdam, near 4.837 E, 52.360 N, with an end speed of 9 km/s. End altitude and end speed point out that nothing was left at that point: there are no meteorites on the ground.

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The radiant of the fireball is located in Scutum: the geocentric radiant is at RA 276.4, DEC -11.4, with a  geocentric velocity of 18.2 km/s. The resulting orbit is an Apollo orbit with an orbital inclination of 7 degrees, an orbital period of 2.15 years and aphelion at 2.7 AU. The object was hence of asteroidal origin: a very small piece of asteroid.

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Acknowledgement: I thank Mark-Jaap ten Hove, Johan Pieper, Koen Miskotte, Jean-Marie Biets, Felix Bettonvil and Peter van Leuteren for making their imagery available for analysis.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Capturing a pass of the X-37B OTV-5, and imaging an ISS transit over the Sun

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Yesterday evening was very clear, and the moon low in the south no real hindrance. I observed a very fine pass of the X-37B secret space plane OTV-5. It was an easy naked eye object. The photograph above (10-second exposure with an EF 2.0/35 mm lens) shows it ascending in the southwest, through Bootes (Arcturus is just above the open window).

The next morning (26 June) at 10:17:21 local time (8:17:21 UT), the International Space Station ISS was predicted to make a transit over the solar disc as seen from my house in Leiden.

I set up the Celestron C6 telescope in the courtyard, put a Baader Solar Foil filter in front of it, and hooked up the Canon EOS 60D to the prime focus. Instead of photographing at rapid burst, the technique I used for imaging with previous transits, I this time put the camera in HD movie mode. While this yields a lower resolution image than photography, the upside is that it yields more images showing the ISS silhouetted in front of the sun. And the ISS is big enough that the reduced resolution is not a real problem, the solar panels of the ISS are still well visible.

The image below is a composite of 21 frames from the resulting movie:

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Here is the movie itself, showing you how rapid such an ISS transit over the sun is (the total duration was only 0.8 seconds - it is over in a blink of the eye). The ISS had an apparent size of 45.8" during the transit, with the sun at 41 degrees elevation in the east:

The movie was made in the prime focus of a Celestron C6 (15-cm, F1500 mm Schmidt-Cassegrain, equiped with a Baader Foil solar filter) with a Canon EOS 60D DSLR in HD movie mode at 25 frames/second, with each frame having an exposure time of 1/4000th of  a second to avoid blurring the ISS. The track and time of the transit had been checked before the observation by loading the latest orbital elements for the ISS into Guide.

The biggest challenge with this kind of imagery is always to focus properly, certainly when the sun is spotless as it was this day. I always find focussing on the sun cumbersome. The focus this time turned out to be reasonably good though.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

OT: The brilliant "Pinkpop" fireball of 16 June 2018 (UPDATED)

In early evening twilight of 16 June 2018, around 21:11 UT (23:11 local time), a brilliant fireball at least as bright as the full moon and fragmenting into multiple pieces, appeared over NW Europe. It was widely seen and reported by the public in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. It garnered a lot of press attention, especially in the Netherlands.

The fireball notably rose to fame because it appeared over the stage of a concert by the Foo Fighters at Pinkpop, the large annual music festival at Landgraaf in the Netherlands. Here is footage of the event over the stage:

From this video, we can determine that the fireball duration was at least 1.65 seconds, and probably longer as the video clearly did not record the start of the fireball but only part of the apparition.

At first it seemed there were no records of the fireball by our dedicated meteor camera network, as it was still very early in twilight. But as it turned out the All-Sky meteor camera of Jean-Marie Biets in Wilderen in Belgium, where it is slightly darker than more north like in the Netherlands at this time of the year, had captured it in a still bright blue sky with only a few stars (and bright planet Jupiter) visible. Here is the image:

The fireball as seen from Wilderen, Belgium. Image (c) Jean-Marie Biets.
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Another image, that popped up through Twitter, was made by a German amateur astronomer, Uwe Reichert from Schwetzingen, who was photographing the conjunction between the moon and Venus low in the west when the fireball shot through the field of view of his camera. That yielded this very nice picture, which also clearly shows the fragmentation into at least two fragments:

image (c) Uwe Reichert
Detail of previous image showing fragmentation. Image (c) Uwe Reichert.

(Note: while it appears as if the fireball pierces a cloud, it in reality appeared behind the cloud, being bright enough to shine through the thinner edges of the cloud. It ended well above cloud levels.)

 The Landgraaf video shows at least 5 separate fragments near the end of the fireball apparition:

Fragmentation into 5 pieces on the Landgraaf video. Click to enlarge.

Based on the Wilderen and Schwetzingen images and some quick azimuth determinations for the fireball endpoint using Jupiter, Venus, the moon and the few bright stars visible on the Wilderen image as reference, I made this cross-bearing as a quick initial assessment, suggesting the fireball appeared over the Belgian Ardennes in the southeast Belgian province of Wallonia, close to the border with Luxemburg:
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Next, it turned out that there was a second meteor camera image, from the All Sky camera located at Bussloo Public Observatory (Mark-Jaap ten Hove):

The fireball as seen from Bussloo, the Netherlands. Image (c) Mark-Jaap ten Hove/Bussloo Public Observatory.
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Like the Wilderen image, only a few stars are visible, not enough to do serious astrometry. I therefore used a trick to get decent astrometry on the images: I asked both photographers for images from somewhat later that night. By measuring star positions on those, I could create an astrometric grid over the camera field, yielding the positions of the start and end of the fireball on both images. This means that, with triangulation, a proper atmospheric trajectory could be reconstructed.

The result is this trajectory, with the endpoint of the fireball only a few km from where my initial crude cross-bearing analysis had placed it:

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The fireball started over the Luxemburg-Belgian border, at 70 km altitude. It came in from the southeast under a steep angle (48 degrees with the horizontal), and ended over the Belgian Ardennes at 30 km altitude. The endpoint is located some 30 km south of Liege.

The apparent radiant of the fireball is on the Ophiuchus-Hercules border. As alas no speed information is available (the Wilderen image has no discernable sektor breaks; the Bussloo camera is unsectored), a precise geocentric radiant cannot be given, and a precise heliocentric orbit cannot be computed either.

The Landgraaf video however puts some constraints on the maximum speed: that cannot have been above 29 km/s, and was probably much less as the Landgraaf video did not pick up the fireball from the start. This is an interesting constraint. For a range of likely speeds up to 24 km/s, the resulting orbits are  all asteroidal in character with inclinations smaller than 23 degrees and aphelion within the orbit of Jupiter.

The map below shows the observed apparent radiant (blue) and geocentric radiant positions for a range of assumed speeds (red):

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The fireball penetrated deeply into the atmosphere and showed fragmentation, but the lack of speed data precludes a definite statement on the end velocity and on whether something could have survived. An end altitude of 30 km is a borderline case: most meteorite droppers end lower, at 25-15 km altitude.

Acknowledgement: I thank Mark-Jaap ten Hove and Jean-Marie Biets for making available their all-sky images for analysis.

Note: the radiant map initially had a labelling error in the declination. This has been corrected

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Orbital ATK's Cygnus AO-9 cargoship chasing the ISS

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The two images above show Orbital ATK's Cygnus AO-9 cargoshi  chasing the International Space Station (ISS), a few hours prior to berthing. The Cygnus OA-9 cargoship, launched on May 21 from Wallops Island, brings supplies (food, equipment etc.) to the Space Station.

I could observe three passes of the two objects during the night of May 23-24: in all three cases the two objects could be seenr at the same time in the sky, with the Cygnus (the fainter trail in the images above) somewhat behind ISS.

The images above are from the first pass (21:48 UT, 23:48 local time), a high pass,  and the third pass (01:00 UT, 03:00m local time), low over the southwest horizon. The Cygnus spacecraft was about 22 seconds behind the ISS on the third pass. The sky over Leiden was somewhat hazy.

The very short third trail near the ISS on the first image is Kosmos 2392.

As usual, the Cygnus spacecraft was quite faint (mag +4.5), so not an easy naked eye target. The brightness of these Cygnus spacecraft is strongly phase-angle dependent. The Dragon spacecraft of their competitor SpaceX are much brighter and easier to see.

The video footage below is from the third pass:

Monday, 23 April 2018

Pinpointing the OTV 5 orbital manoeuvre on 19 April 2018

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As related in a previous post, the X-37B robottic space plane OTV 5 made an orbital manoeuvre on the 19th, lowering its orbital altitude from ~355 km to ~315 km.

It has been observed in its new orbit enough by now (pass predictions for yesterday evening were spot on), to allow an analysis to reconstruct the time and location of the manoeuvre. This can be done by looking for a moment where the positions in the old orbit and the new orbit were close.

Using Mike's pre-manoeuvre OTV 5 orbit of epoch 18104.41928168 and my own post-manoeuvre orbit solution of epoch 18112.84880111, and feeding these into the COLA program written a long time ago by Rob Matson, the resulting time of coincidence is 19 April 2018 at 5:20 UT.

OTV 5 was near perigee and in its descending node at the time, over west Africa, as can be seen on the map above. Manoeuvres typically happen near the nodes and near either perigee or apogee, so that fits well with this reconstructed moment of manoeuvre.

Since the manoeuvre entailed both a lowering of the perigee and a lowering of the apogee, the time and location listed above is likely the second of two manoeuvre moments.

The first manoeuvre burn probably happened near 4:35 UT, near apogee and the ascending node of the original orbit, south of Hawaii. This burn lowered the perigee altitude of the orbit to 310 km. Next, a second burn lowering the apogee altitude to 323 km was conducted half an orbital revolution later at 5:20 UT, near perigee and the ascending node of the orbit over west Africa. The two points are depicted by red circles in the map above.

Past OTV missions frequently made such manoeuvres between different orbital altitudes. They probably are meant to be able to test experimental technology in the payload bay under various thermospheric density and irradiation regimes.

Meanwhile, we continue to track OTV 5 in its new orbit. My observations yesterday were hampered a bit by an untimely field of clouds, but I did get some astrometry. Here is some imagery from yesterday, showing OTV 5 ascending amidst a thin cloud cover (bright star in clouds at right is Capella):

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

OTV 5 or Zuma? A brief explanation why this object is OTV 5 and not Zuma

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The image above shows the US Air Force's "secret" X-37B space plane OTV 5 ascending in the western sky (the two bright stars above the roof are Castor and Pollux), in the evening of 21 April 2018.

I was asked the question: "how do we know this is OTV 5? Why can't it be Zuma?". I will explain here why it is definitely OTV 5 and definitely not Zuma.

The key is in the orientation of the orbital plane. Both OTV 5 and Zuma were launched from Cape Canaveral into a northwest direction, towards azimuth 40-50 degrees (see map with launch hazard zones below). That direction establishes the orbital plane the objects were launched into.

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From our tracking of the OTV 5 candidate the past 10 days, we have the orbital plane this object is moving in. We can project that orbital plane back to the launch dates of both OTV 5 and Zuma.

For the launch date and launch time, it should pass over the launch site, with a correct orientation in terms of direction. That means, in this case: it should pass over Cape Canaveral, into a northeastern direction.

Now let us first do that for OTV 5, which was launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral pad 39A on 7 Sept 2017 at 14:00 UT. The 3D plot below shows the orbital plane of the object we track projected backwards, for the moment of OTV 5 orbit insertion (7 Sep 2017, ~14:09 UT):

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As can be clearly seen, the orbital plane we established for the object we have been tracking the past few days, for this date and time lines up with the launch site, and it is oriented into the correct direction (southwest to northeast). This strongly indicates that the object we track is from the OTV 5 launch.

If we do the same for the Zuma launch, we do not get a good match. Zuma was launched by SpaceX on 8 Jan 2018 at 01:00 UT from Cape Canaveral pad 40. The 3D plot below shows the orbital plane of the object we track projected backwards, for the moment of Zuma's orbit insertion (8 Jan 2018, ~01:09 UT):

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As we can see, the orbital plane we established for the object we have been tracking the past few days, for this date and time does not line up with the launch site, and it is moreover oriented into the wrong direction too (northwest to southeast instead of southwest to northeast: a 90-degree angle!). This strongly indicates that the object we track is not from the Zuma launch.

(As avid readers of this blog know, Zuma presumably failed to detach from the Falcon 9 upper stage due to a faulty adapter provided by the satellite's builder Northrop Grumman, and reentered with the upper stage a few hours after its launch).

So the object's orbital plane lines up with a launch from Cape Canaveral on 7 Sept 2017 and orbit insertion at 14:09 UT, the launch date of OTV 5. Ad to this the very low orbit which was also typical for past OTV missions, and it is very clear that the object we are currently tracking is the X-37B mission OTV 5.

Below is a video of OTV 5 which I shot yesterday evening, 21 April 2018:

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Imaging the X-37B Space Plane OTV 5 post-manoeuvre

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The image above shows the secretive X-37B Space Plane OTV 5, a robottic mini space shuttle flown by the US Air Force, over my house in Leiden, cruising through Leo (the bright star above the chimney is Regulus). It was a bright, easy naked eye object with a brightness of magnitude +1.

In a previous post I detailed how (and why), following the launch in September 2017, we had a hard time tracking down the whereabouts of this fifth OTV mission. Untill Cees Bassa located it on April 11th, in a 54.4 degree inclined orbit. It is the first OTV mission bringing it to the latitudes of the Netherlands.

Clouded weather in the Dutch coastal region after Cees' recovery prevented me from seeing it untill yesterday. During the past week, OTV 5 moved from morning passes to evening passes. Weather improved too medio last week, but still OTV 5 initially escaped me. Because it manoeuvered!

On April 18th, a week after it was first located in orbit, OTV 5 made a manoeuvre. It was a no-show for several observers, including me, on the 19th, but two observers, Tristan Cools in Belgium and Marian Sabo in Slovakia, reported an "unidentified" object some 8 minutes earlier (which means it passed while I was setting up my camera on the 19th). Based on Tristan's photograph of that object, a post-manoeuvre orbit was guessed by Mike McCants as well as by me. Yesterday evening on the 20th, we were ready to look for it, and we did recover OTV 5, a few minutes in front of the estimated new orbit.

The new orbit is still preliminary, but it seems as if the orbit has been lowered from a ~355 km circular orbit to a 307 x  320 km orbit. In a few days, when we have more observations, we'll know more about the new orbit, and when the manoeuvre exactly happened.

The video below which I shot yesterday evening shows OTV 5 cruising through the Coma Berenice cluster:

This was my very first observation of an X-37B! Very cool to see this enigmatic object pass in my own sky. Given that previous OTV missions frequently manoeuvered, it will be an interesting object to follow.

All kinds of nefarious motives and purported specific targets have been ascribed to the X-37B program by the aluminium hat brigade, but the reality probably is that the X-37B is an experimental test-bed for new space technologies, testing these under real space conditions and at various thermospheric regimes, over a prolonged time period, before retrieving them.

I do find it interesting though that this new OTV mission is in a 54.4 degree inclined orbit, rather than the previous 38-43 degree inclined orbits (see comparison in my previous post). Over the past year we have now seen three experimental missions going (or planned to go) into 50-55 degree inclined orbits: USA 276; the failed Zuma; and OTV 5. All three are clearly experimental missions. For Zuma, I suspect it was meant as an experimental radar satellite, and maybe OTV 5 tests radar as well. Or maybe not.

At any rate, I welcome this new attention to ~50-55 degrees inclination, as objects in such orbits are well observable from my 52-degree latitude in the Netherlands.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

X-37B OTV-5 mission located on orbit

OTV-5, The fifth mission of the US Air Force' X-37B  robottic mini-shuttle, was launched from Cape Canaveral on 7 September 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Until last week, OTV-5 had not been located by amateur satellite trackers, and that was somewhat curious, as we did locate and track the previous four missions.

But now OTV-5 has been finally found. In the early morning of April 11, 2018, Dutch satellite tracker Cees Bassa imaged a bright unidentified satellite in a ~54 degree inclined orbit. It was seen again by Cees two days later, on April 13. Ted Molczan managed to link it to a lone sighthing of an unidentified object done by Russell Eberst in Scotland back in early October 2017 that was already suspected to perhaps be OTV-5 at that time (several of us, including me,  had tried to recover the object Russell observed in the next few nights that October, but failed).

OTV-5 immediately was suspected as the identity for this object. It was in a very low, ~355 km circular orbit, which is lower than usual for satellites, but which fits with the characteristics of previous OTV missions.

The orbital plane the object is moving in passed over Cape Canaveral at the moment OTV-5 was launched (see below, which shows the location of the orbital plane for the moment of OTV-5 orbit insertion on 7 September 2017). So that fits nicely, and as a result we are quite confident that this is OTV-5.

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There is a difference with previous OTV missions: OTV-5 is in a 54.5 degree inclined orbit, which is a substantially higher orbital inclination than that of previous OTV missions which were flown at orbital inclinations between 38.0 degrees and 43.5 degrees, as can be seen in this diagram below where the current OTV-5 mission orbit is white, and previous OTV mission orbits are red:

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But this actually fits with information released on the OTV-5 mission by the US Air Force, which prior to the launch of OTV-5 stated that:

"The fifth OTV mission will also be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelop." 

I am very happy that OTV-5 was launched, as it now turns out, into a 54 degree inclined orbit, as for the first time this will give me a chance to see an X-37B OTV mission from the Netherlands. OTV-5 will actually pass over my country (and even somewhat north of it), while previous OTV missions passed over southern Europe only. The previous four missions therefore were not visible from my country, due to their lower orbital inclination.

An obvious question is: why did it take so long to find OTV-5? I have some answers to this that might explain.

First, I think many amateurs subconsciously reckoned it would be in a 38-43 degree inclined orbit like its predecessors. Indeed, the initial search elements we used were for a 43-degree orbit.

Second, this was an autumn launch and the very low orbital altitude means it is not well visible in wintertime from the Northern hemisphere, where almost all currently active satellite trackers are located. Almost all wintertime passes are in Earth shadow.

Now spring has arrived, OTV-5 is emerging out of these shadows, into the light. Weather has not been cooperating for me in the coastal area of the Netherlands where I am located so far, but I hope to be able to joing tracking this object soon. It is an interesting object to track, as previous OTV missions frequently manoeuvered between different orbital altitudes. Plus, the shuttle-like character of this object makes it a special one to track as well.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Updated Tiangong-1 reentry forecasts (updated April 2)

[post last updated April 2, 3:00 UT, 3:45 UT, 16:50 UT and 21:30 UT]

Final orbit and reentry position of Tiangong-1 (click map to enlarge)

TIANGONG-1 has reentered the atmosphere at 00:16 UT on April 2, over the central Pacific Ocean, JSpOC and the 18th Space Control Squadron have announced.

The decay message is, as expected, listing an uncertainty window of only +- 1 minute, indicating this determination was likely based on Space-Based observations by US Early Warning satellites (SBIRS).


So, how did the final pre-reentry forecasts from various sources fare, compared to reality? Here is a map summarizing nominal last pre-reentry forecasts:

click to enlarge map

Note how well the "amateurs" did compared to the professionals!

Note that the map only shows the nominal positions, ignoring the (hefty!) error bars. When the error bars are taken into account, all predictions overlap with the real position.

It gives you an idea about how much weight to attach to these nominal positions.

Sources of these forecasts: ESA, JSpOC, CMSA, Aerospace Corporation, Elecnor Deimos, Jon Mikkel (@Itzalpean, priv .com, last prediction not issued publicly but privately in a message), Josep Remis and myself.


I am currently issuing a daily estimate of the reentry date for the Chinese Space Station Tiangong-1 on Twitter. This current blog post consolidates these estimates and is daily updated. My current and previous predictions:

Date issued       Date predicted (UT)
April 1 III       2 April 00:56 ± 130 min (re-issue)
April 1 III       2 April 02:02 ± 150 min
April 1 II        2 April 00:52 ± 130 min
April 1 I         1 April 22:30 ± 5.6h
March 31 III      1 April 20:30 UT ± 7h
March 31 II       1 April 22:55 UT ± 9h
March 31 I        1 April 21:15 UT ± 11h 
March 30 II       1 April 20:30 UT ± 14h
March 30 I        1.9 April ± 17h
March 29 II       1.5 April ± 0.7 day
March 29 I        1.4 April ± 0.8 day
March 28          1.1 April ± 1.0 day
March 27 II       1.3 April ± 1.2 days
March 27 I        1.1 April ± 1.3 days
March 26          1.1 April ± 1.6 days
March 25          1.2 April ± 1.9 days
March 24          2.6 April ± 2.4 days
March 23          3.5 April ± 3 days
March 22            2 April ± 3 days
March 21           31 March ± 3 days
March 20           31 March ± 3 days
March 19            3 April ± 4 days
March 18            1 April ± 4 days
March 17            1 April ± 4 days
March 16            4 April ± 4 days
March 15            7 April ± 5 days
March 14            6 April ± 5 days
March 13           13 April ± 6 days

Date issued       Date predicted (UT)
April 1 III       2 April 00:36 ± 130 min (final)
April 1 II        2 April 00:21 ± 125 min
April 1 I         1 April 23:20 ± 5.8h
March 31 III      1 April 23:08 UT ± 8h
March 31 II       1 April 22:46 UT ± 9h
March 31 I        1 April 22:05 UT ± 11h
March 30 II       1 April 18:00 UT ± 13h
March 30 I        1.7 April ± 15h
March 29 II       1.6 April ± 0.7 day
March 29 I        1.6 April ± 0.9 day
March 28          1.6 April ± 1.1 day
March 27 II       1.6 April ± 1.3 days
March 27 I        1.7 April ± 1.5 days
March 26          2.2 April ± 1.8 days
March 25          2.3 April ± 2.2 days
March 24          3.6 April ± 2.6 days
March 23          3.8 April ± 3 days
March 22            3 April ± 3 days

(all times are in UT = GMT: while earlier predictions were  expressed in decimal days, I am issuing the latest predictions with a nominal time. Note the large error margin on this time, however!)
Currently indicated is a reentry late April 1 or early April 2 (in GMT ), depending on how the periodic atmospheric density variation develops.

JSpOC, the US Military tracking organization,  is issuing periodic TIP messages for Tiangong-1 on their Space-Track webportal. Their lastforecast (issued late April 1st) was 2 April 00:49 UT ± 2 h.
Their final post-reentry, post-mortem Decay Message gives reentry at 2 April, 00:16 UT +- 1 min.

click diagram to enlarge
click diagram to enlarge

The first set of forecasts is made using Alan Pickup's SatAna and SatEvo software, with current and predicted Solar F10.7 cm flux. The error margins are a standard 25% of the number of days between the last elset used for the estimate, and the estimated moment of reentry. This might be a bit conservative, certainly well before the actual reentry. Note that from March 23 onwards, I am using slightly different settings for SatEvo than before that date, in an attempt to correct for SatAna/SatEvo results being noted to be a bit on the early side using standard settings with recent reentries.

The second set of forecasts (the most reliable, it turns out) is made by modelling the orbital evolution in GMAT, using the MSISE90 model atmosphere, historic and predicted solar flux, and a Prince-Dormand78 integrator. Drag surface is taken from an ongoing analysis of the variation in apparent drag surface as indicated by the NDOT/2 value (see below). The error margins are a standard 25% of the number of days between the last elset used for the estimate, and the estimated moment of reentry. In addition, nominal values for modelling at minimum and maximum drag surface are shown as grey crosses.

Here is the GMAT prediction diagram in a bit more detail, with the actual moment of the reentry indicated by a red x:

click diagram to enlarge

The rest of this post below was written pre-reentry and not updated post-reentry:


The diagrams above shows you how the GMAT and SatAna/SatEvo predictions develop. When the reentry is still several days away, there will remains quite an uncertainty and prediction-to-prediction shift in the estimated moment of reentry, mostly due to periodic variations in the atmospheric density not well represented in the F10.7 cm solar flux variation that is used by most atmospheric models to account for solar activity.

Solar activity has a strong influence on the density of the upper atmosphere - and from that on the drag that the space station experiences. For a forecast, solar activity over the coming days has to be estimated - and those estimates might be off. One -unpredictable- solar flare can completely change the situation.

In addition, the drag surface of Tiangong-1 is unknown and might vary over time (see below, where I discuss an attempt to get some grip on this. And we do know it is spinning). And there is also some leeway in the current mass of Tiangong-1. These all combine to create uncertainty, even with the best reentry models.

As the predicted reentry moment comes nearer, the uncertainties become less. Still even 1-2 hours before a reentry, uncertainties in the moment of reentry (and from that in the position) can still be many tens of minutes. AS these objects move at almost 8 km/s, a 10 minute uncertainty in time amounts to thousands of kilometers uncertainty in the position.

Within the uncertainty of the current JSpOC TIP message, this is the resulting track, i.e. the line where Tiangong 1 could currently come down. Cities with populations of more than 1 million people between 42.8 North and 42.8 South latitude are marked on the map as well, with those under or very near the projected trajectory indicated by white dots:

click map to enlarge

A note about "Live" tracking websites

There are several websites where you can (seemingly) "Live" track objects like Tiangong-1. They are often causing confusion after reentries: people still see the object orbiting on such websites even when it already has come down, and as a result mistakenly think it must still be on-orbit!

How is that possible? Well, contrary to what many people assume, these sites do NOT live track the object. The positions on their maps are not based on a live feed of data.

Instead, the positions on their map are predictions based on orbital elements gathered earlier in the day by the US tracking network and released through JSpOC's webportal. These elements are hence always "old", at least a few hours and sometimes half a day or more.

So even after it has come down, these websites sometimes still depict a spacecraft as on-orbit for a while (untill they update their orbit database). But they show you a ghost!

So never rely on on-line tracking websites to judge whether Tiangong-1 is still on-orbit or not.


Drag variability

There is a periodic variability in the drag parameter B*, which is due to a periodic atmospheric density variation under the influence of periodic solar wind speed variations that are not well represented by the F10.7 cm solar flux variation (see below), as can be seen in the diagram below. It is a complex variation of periodicities dominated by ~5.5 and ~6.8 day periods. I expect the reentry prediction to rock back-and-forth a bit with a similar periodicity.

click diagram to enlarge

If fact, the daily shift in SatAna/SatEvo reentry estimates indeed clearly mimics this periodicity:

click diagram to enlarge

Drag surface reconstruction

For the orbital data of the past weeks I have calculated area-to-mass ratio's, in an attempt to get some grip on the drag surface to be used in my reentry modelling.

I initially used a  mass for Tiangong-1 of 8500 kg, but in an e-mail discussion with Jon Mikkel, he convinced me that that mass might be too high as that value likely refers to a fully fueled Tiangong-1. If we assume ~1000 kg of fuel initially at launch but now spent, i.e. a mass of 7500 kg, the resulting drag surface is lower, varying between 16 m2 and 31 m2 for a 7500 kg mass.

In the diagram below, apparent drag surface values for a 7500 kg mass are shown:

click diagram to enlarge

The calculation was done using the MSISE90 model atmosphere as incorporated in GMAT. For each elset, one full revolution was modelled in GMAT, and atmospheric model densities sampled over that revolution. These values were then averaged to get an average atmospheric density. This density was used in this area-to-mass equation:

A/m = 5.0237*10-9 * ndot/2 / ( Cd * rho * n(4/3)

(where n is the Mean Motion taken from the orbital elements; rho is the atmospheric density as modelled in GMAT; Cd a drag coefficient (2.2); and NDOT/2 is taken from the orbital elements)

The drag surface thus modelled from the data between March 4 and March 28 appears to vary between 16 m2 and 31 m2 (for a mass of 7500 kg). These seem reasonable values: the body of Tiangong-1 measures 10.4 x 3.35 meter (this is excluding the solar panels however), which gives an approximate maximum cross section of 35 m2.

My initial (wrong!) interpretation was that over the two week analytical timespan, the drag surface varied between ~90% and ~50% of the maximum surface, suggesting that the attitude of Tiangong-1 appeared to be slowly varying. As will be discussed below, this was a misinterpretation.

The case was solved and my error of interpretation revealed after Eelco Doornbos of TU Delft suggested an alternative explanation:

It turns out he is right! The diagram below plots the drag of Tiangong-1, and that of the Humanity Star (2018-010F, which reentered 22 March near 13:15 UT). The Humanity Star is a nice test object, because it was orbiting low in the atmosphere too and more importantly, it was semi-globular, i.e. we know it had no variation in drag surface. Any variation in drag visible in the data for Humanity Star therefore must be atmospheric in origin.

click diagram to enlarge

As can be seen, the periodic variation in drag of the Humanity Star and Tiangong-1 closely mimics each other.
So the cause is NOT attitude variation of Tiangong-1 (a variable drag surface due to a slow spin, as I initially interpreted it), but periodic variations in atmospheric density that are not well represented in the MSISE90 model atmosphere.

After all, to quote Monty Python: "It is only a model...!".

This periodic density variation of the atmosphere is the result of periodic variations in the solar wind speed, which in turn are the result of the distribution of coronal holes over the solar surface. The 5.5-6.8 day periodicities I find are actually quite typical values for this variation. More can be read in this paper.

Note that the same variation is not present in the F10.7 cm solar flux, which most models use to calculate atmospheric density variations under the influence of solar activity. This is why it appears as an apparent drag surface variation in the area-to-mass ratio analysis.

For me, this case has thus produced an interesting lesson regarding area-to-mass ratio analysis: variations in apparent drag surface can in reality reflect atmospheric variations not well represented in the model atmosphere, rather than real drag surface variations. In other words: one should be very careful in interpretating the results of an area-to-mass ratio analysis. Lesson learned!


We do know that Tiangong-1 is spinning, as a matter of fact: high resolution RADAR data gathered by Fraunhofer FHR with their TIRA radar  shows that the space station is in a flat spin with a period that was about 4 minutes a week ago, and is about 2.5 minutes currently. TIRA by the way also captured amazingly detailed RADAR images of Tiangong-1, which can be seen here.

click diagram to enlarge

Perigee of the Tiangong-1 orbit is currently below 145 km altitude and rapidly decreasing.
click diagram to enlarge
This diagram shows the frequent orbital raising manoeuvres, ending late 2015, after which the station goes steadily down:

click diagram to enlarge
The rate of decay, clearly going up:

click diagram to enlarge

Where can Tiangong-1 come down?

The map below shows the area where Tiangong-1 potentially can come down: included land areas at risk are southern Eurasia, Australia and New Zealand, Africa, South America, Meso-America and the United States. Northwest Europe including my country (the Netherlands) is not at risk.

In theory, the extreme margins of this zone (i.e. near 42.8 S and 42.8 N) have an elevated risk. In reality, it is notably the position of the perigee which matters, as reentries tend to happen just after perigee passage.

Note that at this moment, the uncertainty in the reentry estimates is that large, that it is not meaningful to provide nominal estimated reentry positions. Any newspaper claims that it will reenter over a particular region, are simply false.

click map to enlarge

Within the uncertainty window of the current JSpOC TIP, the lines on the map below are where Tiangong-1 could come down (cities with populations lager than 1 million people between latitude 42.8 N and 42.8 S are also shown: those under or very near the trajectory of Tiangong-1 are indicated by white dots):

click map to enlarge

Only during the very last few hours before the actual moment of reentry, we can start to point to a particular part of the orbit where it might reenter. But even then, uncertainties in location still will remain large. Satellites near atmospheric reentry move at speeds of almost 8 km/s, so a mere 10 minutes uncertainty in time on either side of the nominally predicted time already means an uncertainty in position of almost 8500 km! And  usually, short before reentry the uncertainty is still much larger than 10 minutes...

An article in the International Business Times has recently appeared which suggests that Chinese officials claim to still have control of Tiangong-1, and that they will do a deliberate deorbit over a designated Ocean area.

In that case, I would expect to see a NOTAM and Maritime Broadcast Warning being issued in advance by Chinese authorities for a specified location and time window. No such NOTAM or Maritime Broadcast Warning has been issued so far, so for the moment I am skeptic of the claim.

What if...?

Tiangong-1 is big enough to almost certainly see pieces survive reentry and hit the ground or the Ocean surface.

Surviving elements of reentries are often parts of the rocket engines and fuel- and inert gas tanks.
The tank below is an example: this was part of the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket (2014-052B) that reentered over Brazil on 28 December 2014. This tank impacted on Brasilian farmland and was subsequently recovered:

photograph (c) Cris Ribeiro, Brasil

The chances of being hit by falling space debris are however very slim: you have a much higher chance of being struck by lightning.

In fact, the biggest risk of freshly reentered space debris is not being hit, but curious people checking out the fallen objects. If the part in question contains a fuel tank with remnants of fuel still in it, this can be very dangerous. Most rocket fuels are highly toxic, and fumes from a ruptured tank still containing some remnant fuel could easily kill you. It can also do nasty things when your skin or eyes come into contact with it.

The video below shows a spent rocket stage that came down downrange from a launch in China in January (this is not "space debris" persé: but rather "launch debris" as it concerns a primary stage that was jettisoned early in the launch, so the stage itself stayed suborbital).

In the second part of the video, you can see people filming the burning wreckage from close by.
DON'T DO THIS! This is extremely dangerous...!

So if by change the reentry does occur over your region and you come upon debris lying in the field, hold your distance and call the emergency services. Let them deal with it.

At the same time, do not worry too much about the risks. It is still most likely that Tiangong-1 will come down over the Ocean, as most of our planet is Ocean.

And finally...

To get into the mood, here is the Hollywood version of a Tiangong reentry for you... ;-)
(Tiangong-1 in reality is much smaller by the way)

Note: this post has been updated, and parts added or rewritten, repeatedly. Text and figures are updated daily

Note 2: a very nice background piece on my reentry estimate efforts was written for Atlas Obscura by Jessica Leigh Hester.