Friday 29 February 2008

NOTAM warns aircraft of decaying USA 193 debris (updated again 02/03)

John Locker brought a new chapter to the attention in the ongoing USA 193 soap story, by pointing to a NOTAM released by the US FAA here on the Satobs list. The text of this NOTAM:


This is weird. I cannot think of any real danger to aircraft by the decay of small fragments of USA 193 debris. Most will burn up well above the flight altitude of aircraft. Those that don't, will be rare and not a real concern in my humble opinion. Moreover, hadn't "they" told us the danger was gone after they successfully shot it to bits?

The Public Relations behind this whole operation is bizarre, from start to end. I am at a loss to understand what is going on behind the scenes here. It is becoming a soap story.

Reading the NOTAM carefully, it seems actually to be more about trying to get information about where something might have come down, then that it really concerns the "danger" to aircraft. The latter merely appears to be the "vehicle", just as the hydrazine "danger" was in the argument to shoot USA 193. Perhaps some component wasn't that destroyed after all and they are after it. And no, that will not be the hydrazine tank.

UPDATE: Strike that last remark. One of the commenters to the topic on the Bad Astronomy blog here has managed to dig up the actual date of issue of this NOTAM. That appears to be Feb 20th, so before the ASAT strike. Which means it is clearly not the result of a debris-analysis made after the ASAT strike.

Still the issueing of this NOTAM remains weird. It does indicate that for some reason, they want to keep track of where debris comes down. Something among it has their interest.

Oh dear: that "they" sounds awfully conspiratory, isn't it? I apologize....and assure you I don't wear tinfoil hats... ;-)

Debris of shot spysat USA 193 endangers and delays new spysat launch

An interesting article has appeared on NROL-28, the launch of a new spy satellite by the NRO, has been delayed because the NRO doesn't want to risk it being hit by debris fragments of the destroyed spy satellite USA 193.

Meanwhile, 12 more orbits have been released for additional fragments of USA 193 besides those released earlier.

In my post here on the latter issue, I mentioned I could not provide graphics of the orbits. Since then, such graphics have appeared on a number of other websites, so I feel I do no harm in doing so too as it already has become public domain. The following pictures show the orbit distribution of the created ring of USA 193 debris around the Earth in 3D, plus a ground map for this afternoon which shows how the fragments have spread along the full orbital extend by now.

(click images to enlarge)

Thursday 28 February 2008

Flaring KeyHole USA 129, and two productive evenings

The last two evenings saw a very clear sky again. Tuesday evening was cold and windy, yesterday evening a bit more comfortable. I obtained a rich batch of positions using both the telescope and the camera: 20 positions on 9 objects on the 26th, and 18 positions on 7 objects yesterday evening. These objects include KeyHoles USA 186 and USA 129, Lacrosse 4, the Lacrosse 5 rk, and various NOSS components.

Yesterday evening at about 20:38 UTC the KeyHole USA 129 (96-072A) flared while crossing Perseus. I was observing it through the telescope at that time and noted it was bright and then faded. I cannot give an exact peak time and magnitude however, as I was concentrating on obtaining positions. I had the camera open at that time, and it catched the onset of the flare very nicely:

(click image to enlarge)

Here is the brightness profile:

(click image to enlarge)

I also captured Lacrosse 4 (00-047A) on photograph, and observed it visually. It was on time, but definitely somewhat off-track.

(click image to enlarge)

I tried in vain to spot the USA 193 debris pieces D and K last evening.

Finally, another picture of the KeyHole USA 129 (this time steady in brightness) shot on the evening of the 26th:

(click image to enlarge)

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Fragments of destroyed spysat USA 193 still in orbit

In a surprise move, Space-Track, the on-line orbital database of USSTRATCOM (formerly the NORAD database), has released orbital elements for 17 fragments of USA 193 still in orbit.

This is surprising, as normally they don't publish anything connected to a classified satellite launch: for example, they do not publish elements for things like spent rocket booster stages or fairings connected to classified launches. I guess they want to show the world that USA 193 is now indeed reduced to fragments, and that they keep track of them.

On February 24, Norwegian observer Christian Kjaernet observed one of these fragments visually through his telescope. His observation remained uncorroborated for some time (notably because of bad weather experienced by several active amateur trackers), but it is clear now that it was indeed a USA 193 debris fragment.

The 17 fragments for which orbital elements have now been released, have spread over almost the full former orbit of USA 193 in the days between the ASAT intercept and the moment of writing this post. Unfortunately, Space-Track restrictive rules of data dissemination do not allow me to provide a map of the spread of fragments.

Most of the 17 fragments now catalogued will decay over the coming month.

Friday 22 February 2008

Yesterdays longer USA 193 related TV interview now on-line (expanded 11:00 GMT)

(expanded 22 Feb, 11:00 GMT)

The last two days were pretty hectic and tiring here. After my short appearance in Wednesday evening's 10 pm TV news, I had another TV-crew visiting me yesterday afternoon, for a longer item in NOVA, a well-watched program on Dutch national television providing in depth backgrounds to some news topics of the day.

It was a good interview, and a much longer item than Wednesday's short tv-news item, with several minutes of me being interviewed at my home. The questions asked were good, focussing on the "why?" of this whole thing and the extend as to what "we" (as active satellite observers) know about these classified satellites. The broadcast can be seen here:

Link (video): NOVA item on USA 193, 21 Feb 2008 (in Dutch)

There was a studio guest too: the resident space related Dutch TV expert Piet Smolders. Amongst others he raised the possibility of nuclear fuel being on board (something I had avoided), and mistakenly says this is the first time the US shoots down a satellite (they did it earlier in September 1985, targetting the Solwind satellite).

In the above screenshot (with thanks to Jacob Kuiper), note the book "comets" which was placed there on request of the camera-man for visual appeal. Also, the NASA "Certificate of Appreciation" (related to my participation in the 1998 Leonid multi-instrument airborne science mission) normally hangs on another part of my wall, but was placed there on a similar request... :-)

Earlier that day, at about 7:15 am in the morning, I was called out of my sleep by the Dutch NOS radio news for a comment to the news of the successful ASAT attack in the 8 am radio news. I was still quite groggy, as I had been up at 4 am to watch the lunar eclipse!

A local radio station called too that afternoon, but by that time I was so tired (and had an agreement with the people from NOVA not to comment elsewhere before the broadcast) that I declined.

All the media attention to the USA 193 story caused another prominent peak in my webstats for this site again the past days:

Among the more interesting visitors was for example this one:

Oh: and the total Lunar Eclipse? For a short while around the start of totality (4 am local time), the moon managed to show up through hazy cloud cover. I managed to shoot a few pictures under apalling conditions, the best of which is these:

But I have been lucky to have seen and photographed anything at all, most Dutch and Belgian observers missed it completely due to the weather.

Thursday 21 February 2008

They did it!

USA 193 has been sucessfully intercepted by a SM-3 missile last night. More in my post here.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

USA 193 and me in the Dutch TV News

Okay, the news item for which they filmed me (see previous post) has been broadcast in the 10 pm News this evening.

It can be seen on the web here in the news item of 22:00 CET (Feb 20). The item starts at 2m00s in the record, my appearance starts at 2m55s in it.

(note: web url of record changed, 21/02 13:20 GMT)

USA 193 lost in clouds, and a visit from a TV crew

As I feared in my previous post, I lost this evenings USA 193 pass. It did seem to turn clear in the afternoon at first, and in early twilight I had real hope. But eventually, at the 18:42 UTC pass the sky had filled with thin clouds. Naked eye, I could barely make out Aldebaran. Tried to find the relevant star-field in the telescope but failed. Oh well....

Earlier this evening, and after several phone calls in the daytime, I got a visit by a reporter and camera-man of the NOS (the Dutch "BBC"). They shortly interviewed me and shot some pictures of me doing mock observations behind the telescope. It is going to be broadcast in the TV News on the Dutch channel 2 at 22:00 CET.

With the current weather conditions, I have little hope for tonight's total lunar eclipse.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Defeated by the weather?

Just as the, perhaps last, visibility window of the by now world-famous USA 193 (06-057A) is starting here, weather has turned bad. Yesterday evening I could still observe the Keyhole USA 129 (96-072A) and the spent rocket boosters Lacrosse 5r (05-016B) and NOSS 3-4r (07-027B) under already hazy conditions: but now, heavy fog is hiding the skies and all what moves along it.

The USA 193 craziness is still continuing. Following the news that it will be shot with a missile somewhere next week - perhaps Wednesday/Thursday night, see also my ongoing updates here - this weblog is attracting an enormous amount of traffic again. Even more than the previous time USA 193 was in the news, late January.

Yesterday I was called by a journalist from the NRC, one of the "quality" newspapers of my country. This resulted in a short piece on USA 193, with some mention of our amateur observing work and me, in today's scientific pages.

This evening the NOS (our Dutch "BBC") called for a short informative chat, as they might do an item on it the coming days.

With all this, I should almost forget to report that I have been observing a lot the past days, taking advantage of three consecutive days of nice clear skies. Targets on these nights were the satellites and rocket bodies mentioned above, especially USA 129.

I also experimented further with photographing the moon through my ETX-70, in preparation for the lunar eclipse of coming Wednesday-Thursday night (that I am affraid I am going to lose to fog and/or clouds). With the help of a few euro of hardware I bought at a hardware store on Saturday, I made an extension to my telescope to firmly attach the camera to the eyepiece.

Below is one of the results. It is a mosaic composite of three images taken in the evening of February 17th. It is 2600 x 2600 pixels wide, 880 kB (click it to see it in full detail).

(click image to enlarge)

Here's a part-image of the southern highgland with a.o. the craters Tycho, Clavius and Schiller:

(click image to enlarge)

Wednesday 13 February 2008

ISS and the Moon

Another clear evening yesterday. The moon is now becoming more and more prominent in the sky. The International Space Station (ISS) made a pass that brought it close to it in twilight at 18:44 local time (17:44 UTC). I made the photograph below with my Canon Ixus on maximum zoom and 2s exposure:

(click image to enlarge)

I also made another moon shot through my ETX-70 telescope:

(click image to enlarge)

Later that evening, telescopic points were obtained on the ELINT sat USA 32 and Keyhole sat USA 129.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Lacrosse 5 "disappearance trick" over the Pleiades, UARS and ISS again

The sky keeps being clear, so last evening I had another observing session.

In twilight I observed ISS again, and filmed it again as it passed Mars and descended to the eastern horizon. Below short movie (shot with my Ixus camera in "movie"-mode) shows it (Mars can occasionally be seen in the upper right corner):

I observed UARS in twilight too, on the request of John Locker. It was about mag. +2 in the brightest part of the pass.

Lacrosse 5 (05-016A) made an initially nice & bright pass that brought it very close to the Pleiades. As I was photographing it, it did it's infamous "disappearance trick" right above the star cluster:

(click image to enlarge)

Other objects observed (telescopically) this evening were USA 129 and the NOSS 3-2 duo.

Last but not least, I imaged the moon again through my Meade ETX-70:

(click image to enlarge)

Monday 11 February 2008

Twice the ISS, and a bag of other objects

Yesterday I observed the International Space Station (ISS) twice. The first observation was in deep twilight, 20 minutes after sunset with the sun at only 4 degrees below the horizon.

I filmed this pass, using the "movie"-mode of my Canon Digital Ixus photo camera. The resulting short movie is below: it shows the ISS descending towards the east.

Later that evening, one pass later, I shot this photograph, which shows the ISS crossing Taurus just before entering earth shadow:

(click image to enlarge)

Both this evening and the morning of today (the 11th) I telescopically observed a number of other objects; the keyhole USA 129 (96-072A), the ELINT USA 32 (88-078A), the SAR satellites Lacrosse 5 (05-016A) and Lacrosse 3 (97-064A), and the NOSS 3-2 duo (03-054A & C) and, as a stray while waiting for USA 32, the old NOSS 6F (84-012F).

In addition, I shot this photograph of the crescent moon through my Meade ETX-70 in the late afternoon/early evening:

(click image to enlarge)

Sunday 10 February 2008

ISS in daylight, and Progress-M62

Inspired by similar observations on Friday by Bram Dorreman, I tried to observe the ISS and the Shuttle just before docking when they made a daylight pass yesterday at 17:43 local time (16:43 UTC). The sun was barely 1 degree under the horizon at that moment.

There was some thin cirrus in the sky, but to my surprise the ISS was ridiculously easy to see with the naked eye! It had a distinct yellow-orange colour, perhaps boosted by the bright blue sky background.

I couldn't see the Shuttle: it was either too faint, to close to the ISS, or the cirrus interfered too much to see it naked eye.

The next ISS pass took place in darkness. ISS was bright, at least -3 if not more. In addition, I observed Progress-M62 again some 10 minutes later. It was fainter than the previous evening, at mag. +1.5. below image shows it passing through the Perseus-Taurus-Auriga area:

(click image to enlarge)

I also observed the NOSS 3-2 duo (03-054A & C) through the telescope, and did so as well with Lacrosse 5 (05-016A) and the Keyhole satellite USA 129 (96-072A). The latter by now is two minutes late and almost a degree off-track with respect to a week old elements.

In spired by recent similar graphs by Bob Christy, I made a lightcurve diagram of Friday's bright flare by Progress-M62:

(click diagram to enlarge)

Here's a similar lightcurve for one of my Space Shuttle STS-122 images of that same evening:

(click diagram to enlarge)

Friday 8 February 2008

Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-122, Progress-M62 flaring, and the ISS

After a sunny day, but with cirrus in the sky, the evening of February 8 was clear. This was the only evening that I had a chance to observe the Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-122 before it docks to the International Space Station. The sequence was for ISS to make a near-zenith pass in twilight around 18:55 local time, followed by Progress-M62 on a similar trajectory ten minutes later, and finally the Space Shuttle STS-122 a quarter of an hour after that, entering shadow just below the zenith.

First the ISS passed, reaching magnitude -3 in the zenith:

(click images to enlarge)

Next the Progress-M62 spacecraft leaving ISS filled with garbage made a pass. It spectacularly flared to mag. -2 in Andromeda (in the image below, M31 the Andromeda galaxy is just to the right of the trail), while the camera was open. The result is this very nice image:

(click image to enlarge)

In this second image, it is back to it's normal brightness of mag. +1 again:

(click image to enlarge)

15 minutes later the Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-122 on its way to the ISS passed, reaching mag. -1 before going into eclips just below the zenith:

(click images to enlarge)

A fine evening altogether! And although I have seen Space Shuttles pass before, this is the first time I catched one on photograph. The spectacular flare of Progress-M62 really made the evening though.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Observing ISS and two of its Progress cargo spacecraft

Yesterday evening was very clear, and provided the rather unique opportunity to see the International Space Station (ISS) pass in twilight, followed several minutes later by two of its cargo Spacecraft: Progress-M62 (07-064A) decoupled from ISS on Wednesday and now moving away from it carrying garbage, and Progress-M63 (08-004A) launched from Baikonur in Kazachstan on Wednesday and on its way to the ISS with fresh cargo. Seeing two Progress spacecraft in free flight on the same evening is unique.

ISS was the first to pass, still in deep twilight, at 18:15 local time, being around mag. -3. Five minutes later Progress-M62 followed on a trajectory a few degrees higher, grazing the Hyades cluster, and being about mag. +1. And twelve minutes after that, the newly launched Progress-M63 followed in a very similar trajectory. By that time, although the sky was still bright due to twilight, it was dark enough to try to photograph it. The resulting photograph has a very bright background drowning the trail, but after some image manipulation for brightness and contrast it is visible:

(click image to enlarge)

I logged a point for Progress-M63 through the telescope, and the endpoint of the trail on the image above provided a second point.

Later in the evening I observed Lacrosse 2 (91-017A), which by now was 34.6 seconds early, the USA 32 ELINT sat (88-078A), Lacrosse 5 (05-016A) and the NOSS 3-2 duo (03-054A & C), the latter duo on two consecutive passes.

Like previous days it was again clouded in the morning, so no chance to observe USA 193.

Tomorrow evening is going to prove very interesting, I hope. The weather prospects are good, and if the launch isn't postponed this evening, I will have a very good 80 degree post-twilight pass of Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-122. In addition, the ISS and the two Progresses can be observed again. Plus, the Soyuz rocket booster (08-004B) from the Progress-M63 launch could prove very interesting, as it will make two passes (one visible and one in shadow) while close to decay.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Lacrosse 2 manoeuvred again (updated)

Yesterday evening was very clear. While looking up some deep-sky objects and while waiting for target satellites to appear, I saw several faint strays.

Lacrosse 2 (91-017A) was 21.6s early and 0.16 degree off-track relative to a week old elset 08027.82795435. Hence, just like early January, it appears to have manoeuvred again.

Update: Russell Eberst's data of the same pass confirm my observation. From a very preliminary analysis I did, it seems that the manoeuvre entails a similar mean motion change by about +0.0005 as was the case early last month.

Other objects observed this evening were the ELINT sat USA 32 (88-078A) and the NOSS 3-2 duo (03-054A & C). In addition, I observed the International Space Station making a pass through Taurus just beneath the Hyades and Pleiades. I had not realised the decoupled Progress M-62 would be following it closely, so I missed that one (it also was just too far behind ISS to show up on the photograph I shot, see below).

(click image to enlarge)

It was overcast this morning so again no chance to observe USA 193. It is still overcast, so I am going to miss both the old and new Progress (the latter launched today) tonight. I hope it clears in time to observe them and the Space Shuttle STS-122 that is scheduled to launch next Thursday.

Sunday 3 February 2008

How USA 193 rocked this blog

Last week has been an amazing week for this blog. While normally only some 10 geeks a day follow my reports in this rather esoteric journal blog, the web traffic sky-rocketed after the imminent USA 193 spy satellite decay became a hot news item, and my post with backgrounds on the satellite became an often consulted link. These graphics of my web traffic the past week show the surge in readers:

It all started when I privately answered a question about the decay that was posted by someone in the Satobs mailing list of satellite observers. My answer was then integrally quoted in one of the comments to the story on Slashdot, mentioning my name as the source. As a result, people started to Google for me. So I put up some pertinent info on this blog, to satisfy their curiosity. Next this blog post of mine was linked by someone as a primary external link in the Wikipedia entry on USA 193. All kinds of internet fora picked up the URL too (both serious fora as well as those of the tin foil hat brigade). The result was a peak in activity that is unique in the history of my blog.

The web statistics for these days contain some interesting hits, from interesting IP's. For example:

* The NSA ended up on my blog, apparently after Googling for info on their own satellite;

* An IP from the US Department of State repeatedly visited over the course of several days;

* An IP from the Sergeant at Arms of the US Senate;

* Various IP's of the US DoD and other US military related IP's, as well as various IP's from the defense industry.

After that NSA visit, I sent a joking e-mail to some friends that I was on the watch for black helicopters, and that in case they should suddenly lose contact with me, they should send some clean underwear to Guantanamo.... :-p

On Monday the 28th of January I was interviewed (together with Prof. Ambrosius of the TU Delft) about the decay by the science program "Hoe?Zo!" of the Dutch educational broadcaster TELEAC on the Dutch national Radio 5 channel. For those who master the Dutch language, an MP3 recording (58 Mb) of the broadcast can be found here. The 8-minute item on USA 193 starts at 9m15s in the broadcast.

NOSS 3-4, Lacrosse 5 oddity, and not every DCF-77 clock is the same... (updated)

This morning, unlike yesterday evening, it was reasonably clear. There was some haze in the sky, but conditions were good enough for decent observations. Targets were the ELINT sat USA 32 (88-078A), two of the NOSS 2-3 components (96-029C & E) and the NOSS 3-4 duo (07-027A & C). USA 193 (060-57A) stayed too low in the sky for my location this morning.

The NOSS 3-4 duo (07-027A & C) is still actively manoeuvering. I observed them on two consecutive passes this morning. Compared to their 08031.475 elsets they were 46-50 seconds late, indicating that they have moved up again between Jan 31 and early Feb 3.

The reason for this manoeuvering is that during their launch last year, the final stage of their rocket booster quit too early, and the payloads as a result entered into a too low orbit. Since that moment, they are gradually working themselves upward to their intended orbits, using their own onboard engines.

In my previous post I noted the purchase of a new DCF-77 clock, following the failure of my old trusted Oregon Scientific DCF-77 clock. Careful comparison to several other DCF-77 clocks however, reveiled that the new clock is 0.40 seconds early to other DCF-77 clocks. That was an unpleasant surprise. I ditched the clock and purchased yet a new one, which runs synchronous with other DCF-77 clocks I compared it too. Interestingly, this new clock was a cheap 7 euro one purchased in a large store chain here in Leiden (HEMA: clock name is "Portland"). The clock that runs 0.40s early (brand: Cresta) was much more expensive. So more expensive evidently not always translates to "more reliable".

As a result, my observations on the evening of Feb 1 need to be corrected by 0.40 seconds.

Those observations concern USA 32 again, and Lacrosse 5 (05-016A). I have the latter 2 seconds early and 0.6 degree off-track compared to elset 08027.73865531. However, this was a difficult observation during a short clearing, with clouds moving into the FOV almost right after the sat passed it, so I cannot rule out I made a mistake in the reference stars used.

Update: an 05-016A observation I made on the evening of Feb 3rd is in-line with elset 08027.73865531 again (delta T only 0.07s, x-track 4 arcminutes), so the Feb 1st result indeed must be the result of a mistake in reference stars used.

Friday 1 February 2008

Peeping through holes in the cloud cover

The past two days the atmosphere has been very dynamic here. We had a gale yesterday, and both yesterday night and the night previous to that cloud cover and short but bright clearings followed each other up unpredictably.

I did try to do some observing, but as a result of these dynamic weather conditions I lost most selected objects to untimely cloud fields: apart from the NOSS 3-2 duo (03-054 A & C) on Wednesday night the 30th Jan.

When observing through the telescope, these NOSS duo's are very attractive targets. They operate in thight couples (the older ones even in trio's), crossing the same field of view with usually only a few seconds between them. It is very cool to see two bright yellow sparks chase each other through the FOV.

NOSS-es are operated by the US Navy, the acronym meaning Naval Ocean Surveillance System. They intercept radio traffic from ships and use it to pinpoint the locations of enemy shipping.

My trusted Oregon Scientific DCF-77 clock (a radio controlled clock getting its time signal from an atomic clock in Frankfurt) died last Wednesday after years of faithful service. Wednesday evening I temporarily used the clock on my weather station, which is also DCF-77 controlled, as a back-up, but I do not completely trust it so I ordered a new DCF-77 as a replacement for the failed one. It arrived today.