Friday 15 July 2011

Some of my pictures on has published a short photographic item about secret spacecraft today.

Two of the images in it were shot by me: a photograph of Lacrosse 3 and one of Mentor 4.

Tuesday 12 July 2011


Among the family of classified satellites, three stand out as more mystifying than the rest: Misty 1 & 2, PAN, and Prowler.

The latter has long existed in the realm of rumours only. It was launched by Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-38, which was a classified DoD mission launched on 15 November 1990. Officialy only one satellite, USA 67, was launched from the Atlantis payload bay. This is believed to be a geostationary SDS communications satellite, SDS 2-2.

STS-38 mission patch

USSTRATCOM released catalogue numbers (but no public orbit) for three objects connected to this launch: the SDS satellite USA 67 itself (90-097B, 20963) plus two rocket bodies (90-097 C & D, 20964 and 20965).

The latter was puzzling, as it is one too many (see the discussion by Ted Molcan here), This was the start of the idea that a second, unacknowledged object was launched by STS-38 as well.

In 2004 an NBC journalist referred to such a secret payload by the name of Prowler, in a news-item discussing a Senate debate about a classified spy satellite program drawing criticism for massive cost overruns. The same journalist, citing anonymous sources, did so again in 2007.

According to these stories, Prowler was an experimental satellite used for close inspection of other (non-US) satellites in geostationary orbit (see discussion here), reportedly coming to within decimeters of some satellites. There are suggestions that it was a test of technology which, in wartime, could be used to sabotage enemies' space assets. It was also said to employ stealth technologies to evade easy detection.

Meanwhile, US amateur observers Ed Cannon and Mike McCants had discovered an unidentified near-geostationary object in July 1998. As time progressed and more and more ISON and amateur-discovered objects could be identified with specific launches, this one was one of few left unidentified. This in turn led to suggestions that the object in question was the rumoured unacknowledged STS-38 launch, Prowler. It was likely discovered only after its active lifetime ended, and it was put in a disposal orbit (see below).

Since then, a long term analysis by Ted Molczan has strengthened this identification. The object has al the right characteristics in terms of brightness behaviour and orbital behaviour. It currently is in an unusual librating disposal orbit that seems devised to keep it out of reach of Soviet tracking facilities (see discussion in depth by Ted here). In a second analysis, Ted showed that STS-38 indeed had the opportunity to launch this object and some tell-tale clues to that are present in the manoeuvering history of STS-38 Atlantis. The whole history of the object, from launch onwards but also including the final disposal orbit when the stealth character of the object was lost, was designed with low detectability by Soviet tracking facilities in mind (see Ted's discussion here).

The object now resides in a currently 13-degrees inclined orbit librating between 73 W and 136 W, putting it over the eastern Pacific, with visibility from the western United States. Over the past two weeks , I imaged it a number of times, using the 0.61-meter "remote" telescope of Sierra Stars observatory in California. Below is one of the better images, shot on the morning of July 6th:

click image to enlarge

Wednesday 6 July 2011

An update on IGS-1B

Along the line of expectations, our tracking data show that the Japanese spy satellite IGS 1B (2003-009B) which malfunctioned in March 2007, keeps coming down (see earlier coverage here and here).

Early July 2011, the perigee had come down to 450 km and the Mean Motion (the number of orbital revolutions per day) is steadfastily increasing as the orbit becames more narrow:

The predicted decay date keeps shifting back and forth, being highly dependant on solar activity. Solar activity has been back to modest the past two months. As a result, the decay date forecast has shifted further away in time.

If solar activity does not increase, forecasted decay will be in late 2013 (SatEvo with current solar flux F10.7 cm = 85, elset 11184.15154535). If it does increase - which is likely, as we are on the approach to a solar maximum - it will be earlier, possibly as early as mid-2012.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how the still active sister-ship IGS 1A (2003-009A), launched in the same 2003 launch, is faring. Above diagram shows the evolution of the orbital inclination. IGS 1B's orbital inclination is clearly drifting, consistent with loss of control. IGS 1A's orbital inclination initially was allowed to co-drift with IGS 1B, but then altered in a manoeuvre mid-2008 that brought the inclination up again, to match the other IGS-es in the constellation. As of 2010, it is kept more or less steady, librating around a value of 97.39 degrees, the sun-synchronous value for a 487 x 498 km orbit.

PAN, and the NOSS 3-5 duo

Monday evening was a nice clear evening with a very transparent sky.

I observed the NOSS 3-5 duo (11-014 A & B), which was captured in a very fine image with a stray nearby, the rocket from the Kosmos 1697 launch (85-097B). De double parallel trail above is the NOSS duo, the single trail under an angle is the Russian rocket (bright star near trails is Deneb):

click image to enlarge

I also took opportunity of the transparent sky to target some geostationary objects low in the southeast. Targets were PAN (09-047A) and Mentor 4 (09-001A):

click image to enlarge

Monday 4 July 2011

Imaging geostationary satellites using a remote telescope [UPDATED]

I have been using the "remote" telescopes of Sierra Stars observatory in California and Winer Observatory in Nevada for some time now to image asteroids (recently, earthgrazing NEA 2011 MD).

The past two days I have used the Sierra Stars Obs. 0.61-meter Cassegrain telescope to make some "remote" images of classified geostationary satellites that are not visible from the Netherlands, but visible from the western United States. It concerned the recently launched SBIRS-GEO1 satellite (11-019A) and the mysterious object (90-097E) that is most likely Prowler, launched in 1990 on STS-38.

Below are the images: as this is a guided telescope, the satellites have created trails on the images. Top image: Prowler. Bottom image: SBIRS-GEO1, plus an unidentified object (UPDATE: the latter object might be the SBIRS-GEO r/b).

click images to enlarge