Tuesday 25 February 2014

USA 186 is defying the schedule

Over the past months I have posted a number of analysis and prognosis with regard to the likely changes to the KH-11 Keyhole/CRYSTAL constellation of optical reconnaisance satellites, following the launch of USA 245 (NROL-65, 2013-043A) into the KH primary West plane on August 28, 2013. The most important of these posts can be found here (Sep 16, 2013), here (Oct 12, 2013) here (Dec 22, 2013), and here (Feb 1, 2014).

One of my predictions was that USA 186 (2005-042A) would be moved from the primary West plane to the secondary West plane, 10 degrees west in RAAN from the primary plane.

Indeed, it initially seemed to keep to my prediction as mid-November 2013 USA 186 made a manoeuvre that involved a 1-degree inclination change. As a result it lost its sun-synchronous precession rate and started to drift westward relative to the other KH-11 satellites, moving orbital plane out of the primary West plane towards the secondary West plane. Its precession rate was such that it would reach a 10-degree difference in RAAN with the new primary plane satellite, USA 245 (2013-043A) near Feb 6. I therefore expected USA 186 to manoeuvre near that date, a manoeuvre that should entail an orbit circularization including a significant lowering of the apogee (after which the orbit would be sun-synchronous again and the westward drift would stop). So as Feb 6th neared, we held our breath.

And nothing happened. USA 186 did not manoeuvre.

It is still drifting westwards, at a rate of  0.12 degrees/day relative to the other KH-11 satellites. My prediction failed.

click images to enlarge

Greg Roberts in South Africa did a good job in tracking USA 186 right up to February 12. As his southern hemisphere summer observing window was coming to an end, he could no longer follow it after that date. Luckily, it is coming in reach of northern hemisphere observers, and Cees Bassa in the Netherlands picked it up on February 21 with the first Northern hemisphere observations of 2014.

Now USA 186 has not manoeuvered, it is time to entertain my alternative scenario which I presented near the end of this post on Dec 22 and this post on Feb 1.

That alternative scenario is that the drift will continue until the difference in RAAN between USA 186 and USA 245 amounts to 20 degrees (instead of 10 degrees). This is a RAAN difference similar to that between the primary and secondary East plane satellites, USA 224 and USA 161. It would create a 90-degree angle in RAAN between the outermost, secondary East and West plane satellites (USA 161 and USA 186).

At the current drift rate, these values will be reached early May.

It is clear that the current, drifting orbit of USA 186 is not an intended end state. The orbit is not sun-synchronous, a must for an optical reconnaissance satellite. The inclination change it made mid-November 2013 is such that a manoeuvre into a ~380 x 400 km orbit similar to USA 161 in the secondary East plane will restore a sun-synchronous precession rate. So that appears to be the intended goal in the future. The current non sun-synchronous orbit is meant to let the RAAN drift up to a desired value. The question now is, what final RAAN value relative to the primary plane is intended.

My guess, now it has turned out to be not 10 degrees, is 20 degrees.

Meanwhile, another question is what they intend to do with the "old" secondary West plane satellite, USA 129 (see the post here).

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