Sunday 20 April 2014

[UPDATED & CORRECTED] Observing the SpaceX Dragon CRS-3, the ISS and two pieces of Dragon launch debris

CORRECTION (21/04/2014 12:55 UT): in the initial post, the two debris pieces were misidentified. "2014-022C" turned out to be 2014-022H, and "2014-022H" turned out to be 2014-022G.

click image to enlarge

Last Friday at 19:25 UT, SpaceX launched the Dragon CRS-3 commercial supply ship to the International Space Station ISS. It passed over Europe 20 minutes later but unfortunately I was clouded out in Leiden. In the middle and eastern parts of the Netherlands as well as elsewhere in Europe, observers were treated to a spectacular view of the Dragon, the Falcon upper stage, and two faint pieces of debris passing by as a thight group of objects.

SpaceX Dragon CRS-3
click image to enlarge

I was more lucky yesterday when the sky was clear and the Dragon and ISS made a late twilight pass culminating at approximately 26 degrees altitude in the SW near 20:06 UT (22:06 local time, sun at -12 deg.). The image above shows the Dragon CRS-3 due south already somewhat past culmination. It was easy to see with the naked eye, attaining magn. +1.5. Its brightness is more similar to a Progress or ATV then to the much fainter commercial Orbital Sciences Cygnus.

The Dragon was about 1m 12s behind the ISS, a visual distance of somewhat over 40 degrees. Pre-observation predictions based on elements a few hours old had put it in front of the ISS, so at first I was wondering whether I missed it. Then, as the ISS was descending towards the SE, I saw it approaching in the SW, chasing the ISS. A very fine sight!

The ISS passing the same sky area as the
earlier image, 1 min earlier
(click image to enlarge)

While I was photographing at the nearby city moat, I had also set up the video in my girlfriend's appartment, and this capture both objects as well: first the ISS, then a minute later the Dragon:

(the display says "GPS BAD" because my GPS time inserter failed to lock on a GPS satellite. I hope it is not broken...)

Apart from the Dragon and the ISS, I observed and photographically imaged a third debris object related to the launch. It is the object catalogued by JSpOC as 2014-022C/#39682. 2014-022H, #39687. It is either the jettisoned Dragon nose cone cover, or one of the solar panel covers   or possibly one of the Nanosat dispensers: I think it is too bright to be one of the several released nanosats itself. It was faint and slowly tumbling, alternating between invisibility and a max magnitude of about +3.5:

tumbling Dragon debris 2014-022H
(click image to enlarge)

[UPDATE:] Later I discovered a second piece of Dragon CRS-3 launch debris on my imagery. It is faint, irregular in brightness and present on two images, the best of which is this one from 20:04:07 UTC:

tumbling Dragon debris 2014-022G
(click image to enlarge)

This turns out to be the object designated 2014-022H, #39687  2014-022G, #39686. This is the other solar panel cover.

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