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

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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:

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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):

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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):

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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