Thursday, 25 May 2017

Observing USA 276, the odd NROL-76 payload

click image to enlarge

The image above shows USA 276 passing over the roof of my house last night. USA 276 is the mystery payload of the May 1 SpaceX NROL-76 launch from Cape Canaveral.

Also visible in the image are three rocket boosters: the r/b of the classified Milstar 3 launch, and two Russian objects. Skies surely are crowded these days...

The photograph above was shot near 3:07 local time (1:07 UT) during the second of two consecutive passes. During the first pass, near 1:30 local time (23:30 UT), I obtained this video record:

USA 276 was quite faint during the first pass (I could not see it by naked eye from Leiden town center). During the second pass it was brighter, attaining mag. +3 near culmination, visible to the naked eye without problem. Due to its low orbital altitude it was very fast: the object is in a 389 x 409 km, 50.0 degree inclined orbit.

After its May 1 launch, there was a lot of discussion among our observers. The launch azimuth seemed to suggest a 50 degree orbital inclination. That would be odd (see below), so not everybody was willing to believe this. Some suggested a dog-leg manoeuvre towards a 63.4 HEO orbit. Because of the lack of precedent, orbital altitudes could only be guessed, making a quick recovery by observers more troublesome.

It took a while (23 days) before the payload was finally observed and the orbit could be confirmed. On May 23-24, the night before I obtained the imagery above, Leo Barhorst in the Netherlands finally found the payload. And it was in a 50 degree inclination, 389 x 409 km Low Earth Orbit.

The purpose of this payload in this odd orbit is a bit of a mystery. The orbital inclination of 50.0 degrees does not match common orbital inclinations attached to specific functions: US military radar satellites (ONYX, TOPAZ) tend to be in 57 degree LEO orbits or their 123 degree retrograde equivalents; SIGINT sats in 63.4 degree orbits (either LEO or HEO); optical reconnaissance satellites in 98 degree sun-synchronous LEO orbits; the X-37B space plane was in a 39-degree inclined very Low Earth Orbit. An orbital inclination of 50.0 degrees, as shown by USA 276, is odd and unusual.

The common opinion is that USA 276 is some technology demonstrator, somewhat similar to the ill-fated USA 193 from 2006, blown from the sky with a SM-3 in 2008. But what technology does it demonstrate?

click map to enlarge

Orbital inclination and orbital altitude are in fact very (some would say oddly) similar to the ISS (see diagrams above and below, showing how close the orbits currently are): the two objects in theory (and based on the current USA 276 orbit) can potentially even make quite close approaches, to within a few km (!), as Ted Molczan showed in a private communication.

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I have found that on June 4, USA 276 will in fact be very close by when (if all goes according to plan)  the SpaceX DRAGON CRS-11 should arive at the ISS at this date. That is, if USA 276 doesn't change its current orbit before then.

Observers in Europe might see the three objects close together in their evening twilight of June 3, with USA 276 some 15-30 degrees distant from the ISS.

The diagram below shows the position of USA 276 relative to the ISS on the European evening of June 3, if USA 276 has not manoeuvered by then:

click image to enlarge

Due to slightly different rates of precession of their orbital nodes, the orbits will slowly diverge from their current close coincidence over time, unless USA 276 makes a corrective manoeuvre.

I have pondered the question whether this all is coincidental or not. While I can in fact think of a potential goal where this all would be on purpose, that would be a very wild thing to do, so perhaps it is not so likely. For the moment, let's better chalk it up to coincidence until new developments seem to point otherwise.

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