Thursday 12 November 2015

Small unusual artificial object WT1190F will impact in a few hours [UPDATED with imagery of actual impact]

click image to enlarge

(for an update with imagery of the actual impact of this object from a research plane, see bottom of post)

The animated GIF above was made from images which I took just a few hours ago with the 0.61-m Cassegrain telescope of MPC G68 Sierra Stars Observatory in Markleeville, California.

The moving object is WT1190F, discovered on October 3 this year by the Catalina Sky Survey. This small peculiar object will impact in a few hours from now (near 6:18 UT, Friday 13 November 2015) just south of Sri Lanka.

It is an unusual object that is not a Near Earth Asteroid but almost certainly a small (1-2 meter) artificial object. It is moving in the Earth-Moon system (i.e. in a very elliptic orbit around earth) and its orbit is under influence of Solar Radiation Pressure, which shows that it is very light weight for its size. This fact, and the geocentric rather than Heliocentric orbit with apogee at twice the distance to the Moon, suggests it is some piece of hardware from a past Lunar mission.

image credit: Bill Gray, Project Pluto

It is not clear from which Lunar mission this object is a relic: it could be from one of the American missions, but also Russian or Chinese. The object in question turns out to have been sporadically observed since 2009, as it is probably the same object earlier designated 9U01FF6 in 2009 and UDA34A3 and UW8551D in 2013.

Shortly after its (re-) discovery on October 3, Bill Gray noted that the orbit yielded impact solutions on November 13 near 6:18 UT. The predicted impact point is over the Indian Ocean, just south of Sri Lanka. Bill Gray has put up a FAQ for this object with maps of the orbit and impact location here.

image credit: Bill Gray, project Pluto

As this is a small, 1-2 meter sized and lightweight object, the impact is harmless. It will burn up in the atmosphere and likely nothing will reach the water surface. It provides scientists with a good opportunity though to observe what happens during a small asteroid impact, as the speed and entry angle of this object is quite similar (see also the project page here).

The astrometry obtained from my images makes, along with data by many other observers, a modest contribution to  establishing the impact point and time as good as possible.

1st UPDATE, 13 Nov 2015, 09 UT:  WT1190F is now toast for a few hours. South Sri Lanka seems to have been clouded out, but there are reports on Twitter of sonic booms from the re-entry heard in Sri Lanka. 

In response to some of the comments, I want to point out that WT1190F is/was not the only artificial object in a trans-Lunar orbit which we were/are tracking. Here you can find an earlier post (out of several) on tracking 2010-050B and 2013-070B, two rocket boosters in trans-Lunar orbits from the Chinese Chang'e 2 and Chang'e 3 Lunar missions.

2nd UPDATE,  13 Nov 2015, 13 UT:  The first imagery (below, three stills and the video) has just appeared of the actual impact near Sri Lanka, shot from a research aircraft organized by IAC / UAE Space Agency / NASA / ESA:

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Flight MH17, satellite data and yesterday's hearing of Dutch Parliament with the Dutch Safety Board

Yesterday I posted (in the context of what appears to refer to SBIRS detections of the recent aircraft crash in the Sinai) on lingering questions with regard to potential US military satellite data on the shootdown of flight MH17 over east Ukraine in July 2014. I blogged about this a year ago too.

Yesterdays recapitulation was timely in many ways, as yesterday afternoon saw a special hearing between Dutch Parliament members and the Dutch Safety Board (DSB), the agency which investigated the tragedy. The latter published its report on their finding in October, leading to yesterday's special Parliament hearing. Several Dutch MP's questioned the DSB representatives about what they perceive as ambiguities and missing information in the report. Among them, potential satellite data.

Dutch MP Pieter Omtzigt especially focussed  on potential US military satellite data (including SBIRS data) in his questions, partially basing his information on this very blog. For those of you who understand Dutch, the most relevant of his questions pertaining to satellite data start at 10:30 in the video snippet at this link.

The answers by the DSB representatives were interesting: they seem to indicate that there are indeed satellite data, although it was not entirely clear what satellite data they were talking about: SBIRS IR detections of the missile launch and ascend trajectory, or KH-11 optical imagery of the relevant parts of the Ukraine before and after the shootdown. Their answers also seem to indicate that DSB members were given access to these data, but cannot publicly report on it because "State Secret"...

For truth finding, these data are extremely important. They are likely much less ambiguous than the reconstructions from the missile impact damage to the aircraft on which the DSB report is basing the reconstructed launch location of the missile. As a Dutch citizen, the country that lost 198 citizens in the tragedy, I sincerely hope that the US government does the right thing and will eventually release enough of these data to confirm where the missile that killed so many innocent men, women and children was launched from. That would be the only ethical and humane thing to do. In a democracy, especially where truth finding is concerned, some things are more important than upholding secrecy, certainly in connection to such a terrible tragedy as this involving the killing of such a large number of citizens of a long time US ally.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Satellite observations and the Russian Metrojet crash in the Sinai [updated]

[updated 3 Nov 2015 14:00 UT]

On 31 October 2015 near 4:13 UTC, Kogalymavia Flight 9268, a Russian commercial flight by airliner Metrojet, crashed in the Egyptian Sinai desert, tragically killing all 224 people on board.

NBC News now reports that according to a US "senior defense official", around the time of this tragedy, a heat signal has been detected over the Sinai by "an American infrared satellite". According to NBC News, the heat signal detection points to an explosion (either mid-air or when the aircraft hit the ground), and the quoted official reportedly said that there is "no indication" that a surface-to-air missile hit the aircraft.

The satellite system in question which detected the heat signal is most likely the classified SBIRS (Space-Based InfraRed System), which I discussed before in the context of the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over the eastern Ukraine a year ago.

It is one of two US military systems (there is the older DSP now being replaced by SBIRS) meant for the early detection of (intercontinental) missile launches. These satellites look for the infrared (heat) signature of such launches. For more details see my earlier post on MH17, and this detailed information sheet by US Defense itself available on the web.

After reading NBC's claim of a satellite detection of this latest aircraft tragedy, I checked which of the SBIRS satellites would have had coverage of the area in question at 31 October 2015, 4:13 UT.

click image to enlarge

Two SBIRS satellites had excellent coverage: the geostationary SBIRS GEO 2 (2013-011A) satellite at longitude 20 E, and the piggyback SBIRS package on the TRUMPET-FO satellite USA 184 (2006-027A) in a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO).

click images to enlarge

The apparent quick confirmation of a SBIRS detection of the Sinai crash reported by NBC News not only shows the capabilities of the SBIRS system, but also begs the question why such information is still lacking with regard to the shootdown of MH17 over the Ukraine a year ago.

In my country, which lost 192 citizens in that tragedy, the downing of MH17 and the question of who is responsible for it are still a hot topic, newly fueled by the recent release of the report by the Dutch Safety Board which shows it was a BUK system that downed the aircraft.

There are tantalizing clues that SBIRS did detect the 2014 shootdown over the Ukraine: the day after the MH17 tragedy unfolded, a "senior US official" reportedly told CNN that a US military system "saw a heat signature at the time the airliner was hit".

This is a very similar statement as the one now reported in connection to the Sinai crash. At the time, I showed that three SBIRS satellites (the same two as indicated above, plus SBIRS GEO 1) had coverage of the Ukraine crash location.

Following that CNN report, this apparent infrared detection has gone into oblivion: there is no mention of it for example in the report of the Dutch Safety Board: the reconstruction of the area where the missile could have been launched is completely based on modelling from the damage pattern to the aircraft's cockpit.

I find it hard to believe, certainly given the anonymous "senior US official" quote to CNN directly after the disaster, that there are no SBIRS detections of the MH17 shootdown.

NATO interest in the area was high at that time, after all this was a quickly escalating conflict right at the border of NATO's and the European Union's influence sphere. The general perception was (and is) that Russia, increasingly seen as the new/old enemy of (east-) European freedom, is trying to expand it's own influence sphere into Europe, and is muscle-flexing towards the east European NATO members. Missiles should have been a natural point of interest to NATO, as a Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down at high altitude in the days before the disaster with what must have been a state-of-the-art Surface-to-Air system, something which should be of concern to NATO, especially given a US military strategy that heavily relies on Air Supremacy. To me it seems that it would be very odd if US military systems like SBIRS were not watching the area.

UPDATE 3 Nov 2015, 14:00-14:30 UT:

In a Twitter conversation, Rainer Kresken rightfully points at  the weather conditions over the relevant part of the Ukraine during the MH17 tragedy. Cloud cover is detrimental to IR detections. But a SAM would still be detectable once it had cleared the cloud cover. According to the report of the Dutch Safety Board, the cloudbase present in the general area around the time of the crash was scattered and between 1000 and 5000 feet (300 meter to 1.5 km) with occasional peaks of the top of the cloud deck to FL350 (350 000 35 000 feet, 10.7 km). These latter were localized thunderstorms. Airfields in the vicinity report scattered clouds at 3300 feet (1 km) and a broken cloud cover at higher altitude, 10000 to 20000 feet (3 to 6 km). This all suggests that a missile would have been visible once clearing 1 km altitude, unless it was cruising through a cumulus tower from a thunderstorm.
Most relevant to me is still that tantalizing CNN quote of a "senior US official" reporting a heat signal, suggesting that there was a SBIRS detection of the missile above the cloud cover.