Tuesday, 19 October 2010

2003 dreams and 2010 facts about the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) satellites

This article published in 2003 in the Army Space Journal contains the following quote on page 5 (lower part first column), regarding the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) satellites:

"The satellites will also be farther out in Space and much harder to detect"
Seven years later, what has come true of this? Two FIA satellites have been launched: one (USA 193) failed spectacularly. The second, the FIA Radar 1/USA 215 (10-046A) was launched a month ago as NROL-41.

It is indeed farther away than the NRO's previous radar reconnaissance satellites, the Lacrosses. The Lacrosses move in orbits with altitudes of 640 km (Lacrosse 2) to 720 km (Lacrosse 5). The FIA Radar 1 moves in an orbit at 1100 km, about 1.6 times as high as the Lacrosses.

But the "harder to detect" has not come true, at least not with the FIA Radar 1. With a brightness reaching magnitude +3.5 on a favourable pass, it can be easily seen by the naked eye, even from the city center of Leiden (which has a population of about 140 000). It shows up brightly on images made with a simple off-the-shelf DSLR and 50 mm lens (see the image near the end of my previous post). When courtyard amateur astronomy nabs it that easy, it is hardly "hard to detect".

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