Wednesday 7 September 2011

USA 161 playing hide-and-seek with observers

A few days ago, I wrote about the effort to recover the KH-12 Keyhole optical reconnaissance satellite USA 161 (01-044A). After it went "missing" following August 24, and not everybody bought into the opinion that it was de-orbitted, it was recovered in the first days of September by an effort of several observers, including Pierre Neirinck and me. It had made a massive orbital manoeuvre (for more details, read here).

Following Pierre Neirinck's and my positive observation on September 1-2 already reported earlier, Björn Gimmle in Norway as well as Pierre and I failed to see it on the night of September 2-3. This could (in the case of Pierre and me) however have been due to unfavourable observing conditions at both our localities in France and the Netherlands.

Next Russell Eberst in Scotland  observed it again on September 3-4. However, on subsequent orbits it definitely got lost again. Scott Tilley in the US could not find it on September 5 and neither could Pierre Neirinck in France (I had meanwhile dropped out of the chase due to bad weather).

Next, Scott Tilley positively observed it on September 6th in an orbital position definitely out of sync with Pierre and my observations from September 1-2. This indicated that USA 161 made yet another major manoeuvre around the time of Russell's September 3-4 observation.

The situation now had gotten very confusing, with one of the analysts trying to solve the discrepancies by suggesting that Russell's observation was not USA 161 but a random stray. This is unlikely though, as any object in LEO big enough to be mistaken for USA 161 is catalogued, and Russell's object did not match any of these known catalogued objects. Moreover, as another analyst remarked, the solution to exclude Russell's observation and link our September 2-3 observations with Scott's September 6 observation, would yield very unrealistic drag parameters.

It got even more confusing for a short while, when Italian observer Alberto Rango reported a possible observation on 6-7 September, but with hesitation as he wasn't too sure. In this case, it quickly turned out to be a stray, ironically the French optical reconnaissance satellite Spot 2.

So, for the moment we have lost USA 161 again. Our observer's corps is now trying to search according to a number of possible orbital solutions, most of them no more than educated guesses. I am confident that given time, it will be found again. Given that the weather has turned bad and that the advancing winter is quickly diminishing my midnight window for USA 161 (it can now only be seen low in the north, where I have horizon obstruction), I think I am out of the chase however.

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