Friday, 3 March 2017

Tracking NROL-79, a new NOSS duo

Launch of NROL-79 from Vandenberg on March 1, 17:49 UT (photo ULA)

On March 1, 2017, at 17:50 UT,  an Atlas V rocket was launched from Vandenberg with a classified (double) payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) onboard. It was the 70th Atlas V mission, and the 14th NRO launch using this launch vehicle.

The two payloads were launched towards a southern direction into a 63.46 degree inclined, 1010 x 1204 km orbit. The payloads are almost certainly a new set of NOSS (Naval Ocean Surveillance System) satellites, NOSS 3-8 (NOSS satellites are also known under the code name INTRUDER). These are SIGINT/ELINT satellites operating in close, formation flying pairs. The purpose of these satellites is to geolocate radio signals, notably signals originating from ships. In order to keep their mutual distance  stable, they operate in 63.4 degree orbits, a critical inclination which keeps perigee in a stable position.

This is the 8th launch in the third generation of these spacecraft.

Based on estimated search elements, both payloads were quickly picked up by amateur trackers. Russell Eberst in Scotland and Alain Figer in France first spotted them about 10 hours after the launch, on March 2.  Paul Camilleri in Australia soon followed. I was clouded out that night, but the next night (March 3) was clear in Leiden, and I managed to image the payloads on two consecutive passes, albeit under a somewhat hazy sky. It was also imaged by Leo Barhorst that same night.

Below are two of my images of the two payloads chasing each other, from consecutive passes, obtained from Leiden under a hazy sky (click them to enlarge):

NROL-79 payloads, image 3 March 2017, 1:43 UT (click to enlarge)

In the image above taken during the first pass near 1:43 UT, the objects are moving from top to bottom through a field in Cygnus. In the image below, from the second pass, they are moving from left to right. Note the difference in brightness between the two objects, noticable during this second pass:

NROL-79 payloads, image 3 March 2017, 3:31 UT (click to enlarge)

The NOSS components are usually designated A and B (sometimes A & C). For the moment, we have named the fainter leading object B. The objects are currently still quite faint, indicating that they have not yet deployed their solar arrays and other gear.

The B object is usually catalogued as "debris" by JSpOC, but this is a ruse: in reality it is a functional payload (as it manoeuvres and carefully stationkeeps with the A component during its operational years).

Our current tracking data established that they are in a 63.46 degree inclined, 1010 x 1204 km orbit. The two payloads are about 45 km apart in space.

Over the coming days, they will likely make manoeuvres to finalize their orbits and respective positions.

The respective distances of current still operational NOSS pairs (NOSS 3-3 to 3-7) varies between 39.5 and 55 km.

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