Thursday 31 December 2009

Last observations of the year, and 2009 at a glance

December 2009 saw a lot of clouded sky, a few clear frosty skies, and lots of snow (for our country at least). After my December 6th observations (see previous post) I observed on December 13th (under modest conditions) and December 28th (under good conditions).

Targets imaged were the HEO objects USA 179 (04-034A), USA 184 (06-027A) and USA 198 (07-060A), and the STSS Demo objects (09-052A & B); and the LEO objects Lacrosse 2 (91-017A) and Lacrosse 5 (05-016A).

These are probably my last observations for this year, as today is overcast and tonight will see fireworks. So, what did 2009 bring on the observational front?

2009 was a good year. I observed on 77 nights, obtaining a total of 953 positions (8 visually, 945 photographically). They were spread over the year as follows:

These observations concern 32 different classified objects (both payloads and rocket boosters), plus a number of special-interest non-classified objects such as Space Shuttles, GOCE, and the Iridium 33 wreckage:

click image to enlarge list

Just for fun, I have also plotted all obtained positions on an RA/Declination map:

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The clustering in certain positions is because I tend to select sky areas with easily recognizable bright star patterns. This helps easy aiming of the camrea, and it also speedens initial star identifications during the astrometric reduction of the images.

Monday 7 December 2009

An unidentified HEO object

Yesterday evening was very clear. I photographed the STSS Demo r/b (09-052C) using the EF 50/2.5 Macro, and then switched to the EF 100/2.8 Macro USM to capture the HEO objects USA 184 (06-027A) and USA 198 (07-060A).

One of the four images capturing the latter, contained an unknown object some 3 degrees south of USA 198. It is a clear trail, similar to that of USA 198 in length and direction. It shows evidence of being the capture of a brief flare. And it doesn't match any known object from the unclassified or classified catalogues.

Below is a detail of the image showing the object (the inset is a 200% blow-up). The trail is about 20 pixels long, or about 3.5'.

click image to enlarge

Friday 4 December 2009

The STSS demo rocket

On November 30, Russel Eberst recovered the "lost" rocket stage 2009-052C from the STSS Demo launch. This allowed Ted to observe it from a preliminary elset in the early hours of Dec 1st, followed by me later that day, and a number of other observers in the days after.

During my observation, thin veil clouds were scattered in the sky, and a bright near-full moon was glowing in the sky. This lead to considerably fogged images. Nevertheless the object showed up on 3 images. It was faint near the zenith and definitely brighter while descending in the east. Below image shows it crossing Andromeda.

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The object should decay somewhere in April/May 2010 (see here). This means we have another nice fastly evolving orbit to keep track on this winter and spring.

This same evening I tried to capture Lacrosse 2 (91-017A) but failed, due to the object having manoeuvred and hence being late.

Thursday 26 November 2009

More flares by GOCE!

After my observation of GOCE (09-013A), ESA's Gravity field and steady state Ocean Circulation Explorer, mildly flaring at 19 November (see here and here), I observed it flaring again on two other occasions: November 25 and November 26th.

Times of these new flares were 17:14:43.6 UTC (Nov 25) and 17:10:25.8 UTC (Nov 26). The November 25th flare was again of about +2.5 magnitude. The November 26th flare had cloud interference.

Below are two images of the November 25th flare (one full, in negative to show the very faint non-flare part of the trail; and a detail of the flare part), and the resulting brightness profile. FWHM of the flare peak is ~0.4s.

click images to enlarge

click diagrams to enlarge

The observation of the flare of the 26th was hampered by clouds. In fact, I only just managed to photograph the satellite at culmination through a temporary gap in the cloud cover. Still, the image (see below) clearly shows it flaring again, quite similar to how it did the evening before:

click images to enlarge

Note that these flares are probably cases where my observing locality was not that near to the central flare path. In fact, the theoretical flare path for the solar panel that probably caused these two flares of the 25th and 26th was over the UK, not the Netherlands.

I have to wait untill I have the opoortunity to observe a flare when the theoretical center of the flare path is closer to my location. Earliest opportunity, weather willing, is next Sunday evening.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Altering tumbling period of the USA 144/Misty-2 decoy (1999-028C)

In August I used a series of photographs to determine the tumbling period of 99-028C, the enigmatic USA 144/Misty-2 "Decoy" (see here).

As the tumbling period of this object is known to alter, I am repeating the experiment. I still need some additional nights to construct a full curve: but the partial curve obtained from the November 19 observations (6 images) already shows a clear change compared to August:

click diagram to enlarge

The sinusoid is for a period of 62 seconds, which compares well to a very similar period visually determined by Ted the same night. It is nice to see the two results coming out so similar.

Back in August the period was 71 seconds. A change of 9 seconds in 3 months time.

In the diagram above, the greyed data points are data from when the trail was very close to both edges of the FOV. Their absolute levels have suffered from lens vignetting, so I scaled them to show that the trend of these points at least is similar to the trend of the period determined from the other four images. The black data points are raw, unaltered data from the latter images.

Friday 20 November 2009

Yesterday's GOCE flare modelled

After measuring the image I obtained of yesterday's GOCE flare, I determined the flare time to be 17:40:34.9 UTC (Nov 19).

Using Simone Corbellini's excellent Visual SAT-flare Tracker 3D software I found the following observational geometry:

SAT ID #34602 (09013A) GOCE
M#01 - 19/11/2009 17h40'34" - UM1 >>> .8839;77.1618;1


Note that the angle sun-craft-observer is close to zero (0.9 degree): sun, observer and craft are on one line.

In below graphic representation from Simone's software, the green line is the observed flare path over Earth's surface:

click image to enlarge

Knowing that the spacecraft has a fixed attitude towards the sun (see the ESA website), and Octagonal shape (meaning reflective surfaces at angles 22.5 and 67.5 degrees available), I find the following theoretical flare model:

SAT ID #34602 (09013A) GOCE

M#01 - 19/11/2009 17h40'34" - UM1 >>> 0;67.5;1

M#02 - 19/11/2009 17h40'35" - UM2 >>> 0;22.5;1


click image to enlarge

This suggests the tilt of my observation is 10 degrees off from the nominal theoretical tilt: either the true tilt is 10 degrees different, or (and I favour that, as it is most likely) modest flaring is still visible 10 degrees on either side of the tilt axis.

In the latter case, closer approaches to the central flare path potentially might result in much brighter flares compared to yesterday's. I'll have opportunities to check that the next 3-4 days, if weather cooperates...especially the evening of 21 November might then see a potentially very nice flare for me.

Yesterday's image of the flare/glint I posted came out a bit dark after conversion to jpg. Below is a lighter version and a larger detail image.

click image to enlarge

STSS Demo 1 (USA 208) passing the Andromeda nebula

After observing it visually through the ETX-70 2 days ago (see my report here), I had some idea that the STSS Demo 2 (09-052B) and it's twin STSS Demo 1 (09-052A) were actually bright enough to be in raneg of my camera with the EF 100/2.8.

So I tried this evening, and with succes: both objects were captured. Below is one of the images, a nice picture showing the STSS Demo 1 (USA 208) passing close to M31, the Andromeda galaxy.

click image to enlarge

Some time ago I obtained the launch patches of this twin mission (STSS is an acronym for Space Tracking and Surveillance System):

Thursday 19 November 2009

Gravity Probe GOCE (Gravity field and steady state Ocean Circulation Explorer) flaring

This evening I tried, for the second time, to capture the ESA gravity probe satellite GOCE (2009-013A) on photograph. My first attempt was on the 17th during a very low pass. This time I tried a 38 degree altitude pass, while it was moving close to mu Hercules.

Much to my excitement, the attempt was succesful, thanks to an unexpected brief flare by the spacecraft due to a reflection of sunlight from probably one of it's solar panel covered sides. I observed the flare visually, estimated it at about mag. +2.5. It shows up well on photograph, the trail fading in and out. Below is the image, shot with a Canon EOS 450D + EF 50/2.5 Macro @ 800 ISO:

click image to enlarge

GOCE (Gravity field and steady state Ocean Circulation Explorer) is a European satellite with the purpose to map the earth's gravity field in high detail. Read more about it on the ESA website here.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-129 and the STSS Demo-2

Yesterday evening it unexpectedly cleared, in front of a storm depression. This allowed me to observe Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-129, launched the day before and on its way to the ISS.

I observed it twice: first around 16:24 UTC, in deep twilight with the sun only 6 degrees under the horizon. It made a pass culminating at 40 degrees, and was easily visible, especially past culmination. Its brightness was mag. -01 or thereabout.

The second time I observed it, twilight had ended and the sky was dark and clear. The Shuttle stayed low however, entering Earth shadow at 27 degrees altitude short after rising in the west. I made this picture with the Canon EOS 450D and the EF 50/2.5:

click image to enlarge

Next three objects were targetted with the EF 100/2.8: USA 184 and USA 179, both in Molniya orbits, and the USA 144 Decoy (99-028C).

Unfortunately, due to a human error the images came out slightly out of focus. The USA 179 and the USA 144 Decoy series were still measurable though.

At the end of the session, a telescopic observation (Meade ETX-70 at 13.5x, stopwatch and Ted's Obsreduce) was done on one of the recently launched STSS Demo objects: STSS Demo-2 (USA 209), 09-052B. It was only 1.3s early relative to Ted's latest elset.

Monday 9 November 2009

USA 179 and 184

After a month-long absence due to amongst other a hollidays in Canada, I was able to do some observations again last Saturday evening. It was very clear (and rather cold).

Due to a social activity earlier in the evening I had missed the LEO window (which is very short this time of the year at 52 degrees latitude), so I popped the EF 100/2.8 Macro USM on the camera and targetted two Molniya objects high in the sky: USA 179 (2004-034A) and USA 184 (06-027A). The first is an SDS-3 communications satellite, the second an advanced Trumpet SIGINT and SBIRS platform.

Both objects showed up brightly on the images, USA 184 nearly stellar and USA 179 creating clear short trails. Here's a part of one of the USA 179 (2004-034A) images, a small field in Cassiopeia:

click image to enlarge

I obtained the launch patches of these two objects recently.

USA 179:

USA 184:

Tuesday 29 September 2009

The Lacrosse 5 "disappearance trick", and a BWGS meeting

On Saturday 26 September, a small number of BWGS satellite observers gathered at the house-boat of Leo Barhorst (Cospar 4253) at Almere. Present were, besides Leo Barhorst, BWGS president Bram Dorreman and me. A number of active BWGS observers alas could not come, hence the rather small group this time.

In the afternoon we exchanged some information, looked at some software, my collection of "black space program" mission, launch and unit patches, and Leo's collection of space-related postal stamps. I demonstrated how I astrometrically measure my satellite photographs for positions, and how I get brightness curves from an image.

The plan was to try some joint observations that evening (we could stay for the night at Leo's boat), and as it was sunny, we started preparations in the early evening. I took below photograph of Leo (seen frontal) and Bram (seen on the back) while they were making their preparations

click image to enlarge

The sky was not perfect (and would progressively deteriorate later that evening). From a small green a few tens of yards from Leo's boat, we started by watching Iridium 80 flare to mag. -3.5 close to epsilon Cyg in the eastern wingtip of Cygnus. I took the picture below, a 10-second exposure with the EF 100/2.8 Macro USM:

click image to enlarge

Immediately after that I rushed to re-aim the camera and capture the USA 144 decoy (99-028C) passing close to vega in the next minute. Predictions had put the track just west of Vega, and while Bram and Leo were watching there with binoculars I made a series of images. Strangely enough, Bram and leo did not pick it up: and the reason was, after a look at my photographs, that it passed east of Vega, not west! After a puzzled "huh?!?" it dawned upon me: the coordinates of my prediction software were still set on my Leiden locality!

Next up were the objects related to the recent launch of a Russian Meteor weather satellite. Bram and Leo indeed picked one up with their binoculars.

Shortly after that, we watched a nice pass of the SAR Lacrosse 5 (05-016A) with the naked eye. As we watched it, it did it's infamous "disappearance trick" again. It did so during an exposure, that captured the quick loss of brightness very well. It was the first time I imaged the phenomena with my Canon EOS 450 DSLR. It yielded this very nice diagram of the brightness variation (constructed from two images):

click image to enlarge

Note how quick the brightness drop is (it takes a mere 4 seconds) and how sharp the turnpoints in the diagram are.

Next up were passes of the KH-12 optical reconnaisance Keyhole USA 186 (05-042A), which briefly attained naked eye visibility and was of course photographed; and the NOSS 3-3 duo (05-004A & C) which were faintly visible to the naked eye as they crossed Cygnus, and yielded two very fine pictures, one of which is below:

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Note the difference in brightness between the A and C components. (note: I mistakenly labelled the C component as 'B' in the image...)

After this, Leo and Bram observed the NOSS 3-3 rocket, which is a flasher. As the sky quality rapidly deteriorated, we called it quits after that and went inside to reduce the observational data.

It was nice to meet and observe together. Leo was a perfect host, and his cat Bankie kept my feet warm later that night.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

The past week saw several bright evenings, yielding a rich haul of satellite positions. Observations were done in the evenings of September 16, 17, 20 and 21. Data were obtained on some of "the usual suspects": the KH-12 Keyholes USA 129 and USA 186, the SAR Lacrosse 2, the HEO objects USA 184 and USA 198, and the USA 144 decoy.

Both KH-12 Keyholes USA 129 and 186 slowly flared to -1 at September 16th: 96-072A at about 19:44:27 UTC in the southeast; 05-042A at 21:01:46 UTC in the northwest.

USA 129 showed another bright slow flare peaking about 20:00:51 UTC on 17 Sep, just after the end of an exposure. I captured the rising part of it.

Below are two pictures of last evening (21 Sept), showing the KH-12 Keyhole plus a faint stray near M31, the Andromeda galaxy: and showing the USA 144 decoy passing close to the ELINT USA 184. The first image was made with the EF 50/2.5 macro lens, the second with the EF 100/2.8 macro USM lens.

click images to enlarge

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Who knows more about this patch? (updated)

I recently obtained this cool looking patch:

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All I know is that it is connected to the NRO operations at Vandenberg AFB. Anyone knows a bit more? I have questions such as: what do the 4 + 7 white stars refer to; What does the "PSO - Protecting Satellite Operations" refer to: is it a unit, or some generic statement? Inquiring minds want to know... ;-)

The owl eyes frequently feature in NRO related mission patches (notably, the Lacrosse patches). The four 4-pointed yellow stars likewise frequently occur in classified launch patches from Vandenberg launches. They might or might not be related to the 4th Space Launch Squadron launching Atlas and Delta rockets from Vandenberg. The unit's patch features similar stars:

click image to enlarge

The globe with orbiting satellite, is a version of the NRO symbol.


I had a communication about this patch with Trevor Paglen. Like me he feels it is probably from some security unit connected to the Vandenberg NRO office.
Together, we came upon the 614th Space Intelligence Squadron as a possible "suspect". In that case, the white stars could refer to the Squadron number: 6 + 1 on the right, 4 on the left = 614.

More HTV-1 and Molniya satellites

Yesterday evening 13-14 September was clear again. I had a very fine near-zenith pass of the HTV-1 (09-048A) on it's way to the ISS. It was fast and bright again (mag. 0), and again distinctly orange. It flared to -2 at 19:28:35 UTC (13 Sep). On below image (taken with the Tamron lens this time, at 17 mm) it is rising over the rooftops, with the distinct orange colour visible:

click image to enlarge

I also imaged the high altitude objects USA 184 (06-027A) and USA 198 (07-060A) again later that night, using the EF 100/2.8 Macro USM lens. Below animated GIF is composed of 5 images of 10 seconds exposure, taken at 20 second intervals, and shows USA 198 between 22:04:02 and 22:05:22 UTC. It was cruising at 34300 km altitude at that time, over 56.8N, 11.9 E. The frames are crops of small parts of the original images, shown here at full pixel resolution. One pixel equals 10" (arcseconds):


Sunday 13 September 2009

More observations from last evening

The clouds that threatened last evenings HTV-1 observation (see previous post) moved out somewhat later, allowing me to bag several objects.

I observed both of the evening KH-12 Keyholes, USA 129 (96-072A) and USA 186 (05-042A). USA 129 was very bright (mag. -1) while ascending through Aquila low in the south, yielding some very fine pictures of which this is the first:

click image to enlarge

The other KH-12, USA 186, featured a slow bright flare to mag. -2 around 21:10:35 UTC (12 Sep), alas outside the camera view.

Some high altitude objects were captured again as well: the by now familiar USA 184 ELINT/SBIRS (06-027A), the SDS-3 USA 198 (07-060A) and the USA 144/Misty-2 Decoy (99-028C).

I recently obtained the launch patches of both USA 184 and USA 198:

click images to enlarge

The USA 198 patch (bottom) shows the satellite constellation it is part of: two Molniya orbits and a geostationary orbit. The Latin text roughly translates to "Beware of our Sting".

Saturday 12 September 2009

The HTV-1, on it's way to the ISS (UPDATED)

This evening I had a nice pass of the new Japanese cargoship HTV-1 (09-048A, launched on September 10th) on it's maiden flight to the ISS.

It was bright and fast, being about +1 or even a bit brighter, and flaring briefly to -1 at about 19:34:43 UTC. It was distinctly orange in colour.

I captured it on photograph together with a bright stray, the Kosmos 1346 rocket (82-027B). It was all a lucky shot, as clouds were moving in fast (and can already be seen at the top of the image)

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The detail image below, shows the distinct orange colour of the HTV-1. It is due to the spacecraft being wrapped in protective orange-coloured metal foil.

click image to enlarge

Molniya orbits and a Keyhole flare again

The evening of September 10 saw more than a nice Space Shuttle pass (see previous post) and the ISS.

In fact, it was a prolific evening which yielded data on the Lacrosse 2 SAR (91-017A), the USA 186 KH-12 Keyhole (05-042A) and two objects in Molniya orbits: the ELINT and SBIRS satellite USA 184 (06-027A) and the SDS-3 communication satellite USA 198 (07-060A).

USA 184 was imaged in two sessions 1h 45m apart. It is interesting to see the effect of it moving towards its apogeum (see below: in these images, which are on the same scale and at full pixel resolution, 1 pixel equals 10" (arcseconds)): while during the first session the satellite still creates a recognizable trail in the 10 second exposures (taken with the EF100/2.8 Macro USM), it appears as an almost static stellar object in the exposures taken 1h 45m later:

click image to enlarge

The Keyhole USA 186 flared brightly to -1 at about 20:25:43 UTC, just before the start of an exposure. I captured the descending branch of the flare. As I had mispointed the camera in haste, the satellite unfortunately runs out of the FOV (the sat is moving from right to left on the image):

click images to enlarge

Friday 11 September 2009

Space Shuttle Discovery STS-128

Yesterday it was a close call whether I would see the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-128 or not. A large field of clouds passed in late twilight, and only moved away some 10 minutes before the Shuttle pass. The clouds made me miss the newly launched Japanese HTV cargo ship to the ISS.

But the clouds moved away in time, and there it was: about mag. +2 to +2.5 and fast, and...39 seconds early on predictions based on orbital elements of earlier that day.

Three minutes later, the ISS sailed by in its majestic fashion.

The image below shows the shuttle passing through Ophiuchus.

click image to enlarge

Wednesday 9 September 2009

A keyhole flare, and an SDS-3 satellite (USA 198)

Last two evenings were clear. On September 7th I watched and imaged the KH-12 Keyhole USA 129 (96-072A), together with my neighbour who saw her first Keyhole this way.

On September 8th I imaged both USA 129 and another KH-12 keyhole, USA 186 (05-042A). USA 129 briefly flared to mag. +0.5 at 20:49:21.7 UTC. Below is the image, and the brightness profile (the image saturates near the flare peak). In the same image, slightly below and to the right, another faint trail can be seen: this is a rocket stage, 08-049B, from the launch of a Thai communication satellite in 2008, launched from Russia with a Dnepr rocket, a converted ICBM.

click images to enlarge

I also imaged two high altitude objects: again the USA 144/Misty-2 decoy (99-028C, see my post here and here) and USA 198 (07-060A), an SDS-3 communications satellite in a Molniya orbit. One of the tasks of this type of satellite, is believed to be the relay of data from the Keyholes to ground stations.

click image to enlarge

Below animated GIF shows USA 198 as a moving object (moving from left to right) just right of the frame center:


Wednesday 2 September 2009

A Keyhole flaring, a Molniya ELINT and the USA 144 decoy again

The evenings of August 31 and September 1 were clear. On August 31 I targetted two higher objects with the EF 100/2.8 Macro USM: USA 184 (06-027A), an ELINT in a Molniya orbit (see a few posts back), and the USA 144 Decoy again (99-028C). On September 1st, two LEO objects were the target: the KH-12 Keyholes USA 129 (96-072A) and USA 186 (05-042A).

USA 129 brightly flared to mag. -1 at 20:34:11.1 UTC (Sep 1st). The camera was open when it did:

Click image to enlarge

The series of images of the USA 144 Decoy yielded information again about the periodicity of it's brightness (indicating the tumbling period). Like the data of August 25 and 27, it fits a sinusoid with a period of 71 second.

Click diagram to enlarge

Sunday 30 August 2009

The USA 144/Misty-2 launch patch

Following my previous post with an analysis of the brightness variation of the USA 144/Misty-2 decoy (99-028C), one of the readers of this (b)log asked me whether I had any comments on the USA 144/Misty-2 launch patch.

Very little of use is to be gleaned about the mission itself I think, as it is a launch patch rather than a mission patch. Moreover, my guesses are as good as anybodies. I can say this though:

"B-12" is the launch number of this Titan launch. "2 SLS" stands for 2nd Space Launch Squadron. They launched the rocket from Vandenberg AFB. "NRO" of course stands for National Reconnaissance Office, who ordered and operates the payload.

The half illuminated, half in shadow earth globe with the grid and the orbiting satellite, as well as the four stars, are the logo of the 4th Space Launch Squadron. Short before this launch, they were merged with the 2nd Space Launch Squadron.

As for the tiger and the text "The cat's out of the bag!", I have no idea. The text could perhaps refer to the fact that this was the maiden flight of the Titan IV-B in the 404 configuration. Or it could not.

A discussion of the patch by Dwayne Day in The Space Review can be found here.