Friday, 26 August 2011

KH-12 USA 161 de-orbited? [updated 02/09/2011]

UPDATE 2 Sept 2011: USA 161 is Still Alive! It has not been deorbitted but made a large manoeuvre. Read more about the recovery here.

Negative observations on Wednesday and Thursday 24-25 and 25-26 August reported by Russell Eberst from Scotland on SeeSat-L and Pierre Neirinck from France (priv. com) suggest that the KH-12 Keyhole USA 161 (2001-044A), an advanced high resolution optical reconnaisance satellite launched on 5 October 2001, has either undergone a large manoeuvre or (more likely) has been de-orbited last week.

Earlier this year (January 20, 2011), USA 224 (2011-002A) was launched as NROL-49 and put in the same orbital plane as USA 161, probably as a replacement for the latter.

Below are two archive pictures I shot of USA 161 brightly flaring twice on 30 July 2009:

click image to enlarge

The remaining KH-12 constellation (if indeed USA 161 has been de-orbitted last week) now consists of three satellites: USA 129 (96-072A), USA 186 (05-042A) and USA 224 (2011-002A), the oldest of which (USA 129) is now 15 years in service.

USA 224 which replaced USA 161 represents the noon and midnight plane. USA 129 and USA 186 represent the morning and evening plane. Below diagram shows the satellite constellation as it is now USA 161 has presumably been de-orbitted:

click diagram to enlarge

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