Sunday, 23 March 2014

First post winter-blackout observations of KH-11 Keyhole/CRYSTAL USA 129

One by one the KH-11 Keyhole/CRYSTAL optical reconnaissance satellites are emerging from the Northern hemisphere winter black-out. Following USA 186 (2005-042A) on Feb 21, and USA 245 (2013-043A) on March 3, USA 129 (1996-072A) has now been recovered as well on March 21.

USA 129 was last seen by Greg Roberts in South Africa on Feb 12.  It had hence not been seen for over a month until it was recovered by me and Leo Barhorst last Friday evening. Below is my recovery image:

recovery image of USA 129, 21 March 2014
click image to enlarge

This means all three objects in the West (evening) plane have now been recovered. Recovery of the two East (midnight) plane objects (USA 161 and USA 224) will have to wait until mid-April.

I went to my secondary site in the Cronesteyn polder in the evening of March 21, with the explicit aim of recovering USA 129. I had aimed the camera, with the 1.4/85mm lens, at 33 degrees elevation, at a point covering the orbital plane of the satellite where it should just have emerged out of earth shadow.

And it did, 104 seconds late and 0.8 degree off-track from the orbital elements based on Greg's last observation of Feb 12. Running a series of images for several minutes, I snapped it on two images.

In Almere (also in the Netherlands), some 55 km Northeast of me, Leo Barhorst also captured it using his WATEC camera, and reported it as an "unknown".

Over the coming days, we hope to capture more positions as the satellite gradually becomes more visible.

click image to enlarge

That same evening, I photographed two other classified objects: USA 186 (2005-042A, above, with two strays Russian rocket boosters in the image as well) and SAR-Lupe 5 (2008-036A), a German military Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite.

click image to enlarge

SAR-Lupe 5 was captured by accident, when I was making a test image to check lens focus. Two satellites showed up in the test image: the very old Russian weather satellite Meteor 1-5 (1970-047A) and SAR-Lupe 5. As I had not carefully timed this image (I did not expect a classified object to be in it), Meteor 1-5 provided a welcome time calibration for the image. SAR-Lupe 5 was 57 seconds early and 1 degree off-track relative to 10-day old orbital elements.

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