Thursday 1 June 2017

The Plot Thickens (Ball Aerospace, USA 276, RAVEN and the ISS)

(I acknowledge that what I write below is, again, matter of a highly speculative nature, and should be treated as such)

In a previous post, which is currently gaining media traction (e.g. here for a serious article on CNet, and here for a raunchy UK tabloid version, which is also NSFW by the way), I wrote in detail about the curious situation with the recently launched US spy satellite USA 276 (launched as NROL-76 on May 1). It appears to be moving towards a series of surreptitious very close approaches with the International Space Station (ISS). For more details see my post here.

While browsing the website of Ball Aerospace, the company that built USA 276, I found that they also have built RAVEN, an instrument delivered to and installed on the outside of the ISS in February this year.

RAVEN. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn

As Ball Aerospace writes about RAVEN on their website:

"RAVEN is a technology demonstration mission that aims to advance the state-of-the art in rendezvous, proximity operations and docking. Raven includes visible cameras, an infrared camera and a flash LIDAR, called the Vision Navigation Sensor (VNS). In building and designing the VNS, Ball has provided Raven with its “eyes,” which will watch vehicles approach and depart the ISS."

So, let that sink in: Ball Aerospace, the company that built USA 276, a spacecraft that appears to be secretly moving towards a  series of clandestine very close approaches to the ISS, also built RAVEN, an experiment installed on the ISS to monitor close approaching spacecraft. 

NROL-76 is said to have been part of a "delivery to orbit" contract: e.g. the spacecraft and its launch is the responsibility of the builder (Ball Aerospace, who hired SpaceX for the launch), who hands over the spacecraft to the customer (the NRO) once in operational orbit. The question now is, is USA 276 at this stage still operated by Ball Aerospace, or has it been handed over to the NRO already?

(even if it isn't, I cannot believe that the NRO would have been kept in the dark about these ISS approaches. It would, however, create 'plausible deniability').

RAVEN was built by Ball Aerospace for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. It is a possibility that it was jointly funded by NASA and the NRO (but that is pure speculation). Still, to use the ISS in this way is quite brazen, to say the least.

Note that while NASA participates in the ISS, the ISS is not owned by NASA: it is an international partnership that besides NASA includes ESA (Europe), JAXA (Japan), Roscosmos (Russia) and Canada, who would probably reject the idea of the ISS being made part of a classified US military experiment (certainly the Russians would).

Of course, this is all, and I emphasize this, pure speculation. But it is curious, to say the least, how Ball Aerospace and close approach monitoring come together here, from multiple angles (pun not intended). The plot thickens....

UPDATE, 3 June 13:15 UT:

A good summary of the pro's and con's on whether the ISS-USA 276 conjunction is coincidence or not, and whether there is a connection to RAVEN , by Ted Molczan is on the SeeSat-L list.

1 comment:

jim oberg said...

Maybe we can assess NASA's role in this by seeing how NASA flight controllers advise -- or don't -- the crew on where/when to get the best visuals on the close approaches. It ought to be plenty bright when seen against dark Earth or space. If the approaches are innocent, I'd imagine the crew would be intrigued enough to watch and report.

How would you advise the crew to look -- when, and in what direction -- to get a good view? I'll forward your advice to a Flight Director.