Thursday, 28 December 2017

Effects of December 26 Russian TOPOL RS-12M ICBM test also seen from the Netherlands

Image (c) Bussloo Public Observatory/Mark-Jaap ten Hove
click to enlarge
On 26 December 2017, Russia's Strategic Missile Force conducted a flight test with a TOPOL RS-12M ICBM from Kapustin-Yar in Astrakhan. The test was "aimed at testing perspective armament for intercontinental ballistic missiles".

The test resulted in a sky phenomena that was photographed from East and Central Europe, and, as it turns out, even NW Europe. A luminous bubble-cloud like phenomena appeared in the eastern sky as seen from Europe. There is some incredible imagery from Austria, as well as other locations.

I sent out an alert to the operators of the Dutch photographic all-sky meteor camera network to see if perhaps they captured something. Most stations were clouded out, but the station at the Bussloo Public Observatory in the east of the Netherlands did capture the event, amidst clouds!

Above is a part of the all-sky image: the phenomena is the ghostly neon-blue glow due east, behind the clouds. Below it a part of the same image in more detail:

Image (c) Bussloo Public Observatory/Mark-Jaap ten Hove
click to enlarge
Bussloo is at 6.12 E, 52.20 N. It is 2800 km distant from Kapustin-Yar, which is at 82 degrees azimuth as seen from Bussloo, so almost due East.

The cloud is exhaust from the missile at (very) high altitude in space, illuminated by the sun.

In the image, taken at 03:44 UT (December 26), the top of the blue cloud is at an altitude of ~30 degrees (stars from Corona borealis are visible in the blue cloud: the bright star somewhat right of the center in the second image is Arcturus).

Assuming the cloud is right above Kapustin-Yar, this would place the top of the cloud at an altitude of ~3300 km. If it is closer in range (e.g. when expanding and/or drifting westwards), it is lower.

(I thank Bussloo Public Observatory (Mark-Jaap ten Hove) for their kind permission to publish their photographs and all the Dutch all-sky meteor camera operators for checking their imagery)

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

[UPDATED] Where to hide your nuclear missile submarine? (but be quick)

(Updated 20 Dec 2017 23:25 UT with a new plot that includes DSP)

Say, you are the leader of a nefarious country that is in posession of submarines equiped with long range nuclear missiles. You want to launch a stealth missile attack codenamed "Operation Orange Squeeze" on a northern hemisphere Super Power.

Where would you direct your submarine, and where would you best fire you missiles, from the perspective of an as-late-as-possible space-based detection of your missile launches?

The answer came to me today when, after a question by someone (in the context of a war crime investigation), I looked into the current global coverage of the Space Based Infra Red System (SBIRS), the US system of Early Warning satellites that looks for missile launches:

click map to enlarge

The red areas in the map above have an almost continuous coverage by SBIRS satellites (and often by multiple SBIRS satellites at the same time). The dark blue and black areas in the map by contrast have only a few minutes of SBIRS coverage each day, or even none at all.

As you can see, there is a clear gap in coverage in the southeastern Pacific, with lowest coverage in the area near the Galapagos islands. That is where I would park my nuclear missile submarine.

You might have to be quick to pull off your nefarious plan though. A new SBIRS satellite, the fourth satellite in the geostationary component, will launch in January. It wouldn't surprise me if it stops the gap, once operational.

Of course, this map is in fact somewhat deceptive anyway. It only shows the coverage by SBIRS. But there is also the legacy early warning satellite system called DSP (Defense Support System), which still has active satellites, and which is not taken into account here [UPDATE: but see the plot at the end of this post!]. It is less sensitive than SBIRS, but likely will detect your ICBM SLBM launch.

Back to SBIRS. SBIRS is made up of two components, each currently consisting of three satellites (so six in total): three geosynchronous SBIRS-GEO satellites at geostationary altitude, and three SBIRS-HEO satellites (TRUMPET-FO SIGINT satellites with a piggy-back SBIRS package) in 64-degree inclined Highly Elliptical Orbits with two revolutions a day.

click map to enlarge

The map above shows the coverage of the three geosynchronous SBIRS satellites (a fourth will be launched in January). Eurasia, Africa and the western Pacific Ocean has a continuous coverage by these satellites, with central Asia, Pakistan and India (the latter two known nuclear powers) particularly well covered.

The SBIRS-HEO coverage is more variable and depends on the date and time of day, but the system is designed such that at least one of the HEO satellites will have much of the Northern hemisphere in view at any time. Here are a few examples, for various times of the day: note how coverage of the Northern hemisphere is near-continuous (the HEO component also particularly covers the Arctic region well, which is at the edge of the GEO component's coverage).

click maps to enlarge
A SBIRS satellite typically has two modes: there is the scanning mode, which scans the whole visible hemisphere of the earth (as seen from the satellite) for infra-red heat signatures in less than 10 seconds. And there is the staring mode, a more sensitive sensor which can be used to observe a specific region or just detected infra-red event.

In the case of a missile launch, the sensors pick up the heat signal of the missile engine. Because of the large degree of worldwide coverage which the system now provides, an undetected stealth launch of a nuclear missile has become almost impossible.

SBIRS is probably an important source of  Early Warning capacity and information on the recent North Korean missile tests.

UPDATE 20 Dec 2017  23:25 UT:

I now also included the four DSP satellites that are still operational according to the database of the Union of Concerned Scientists. That leads to the following map:

click map to enlarge
As you can see, the gap has become smaller, but a gap is still there. Red October might be lurking in front of the South American west coast.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Objects from the Ariane VA240 launch (Galileo 19, 20, 21, 22) observed from the Netherlands [UPDATED]

image 18:53 ~ 18:56 UT. Photograph (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge

On 12 December 2017 at 18:36:07 UT, an  Arianespace Ariane 5 ES rocket launched four Galileo navigation satellites into space from Kourou, French Guyana, for the European Space Agency (ESA).

Twenty minutes later, amateur astronomer Klaas Jobse (Astronomy Project Oostkapelle) in the village of Oostkapelle on the coast of the Netherlands imaged a phenomena in the sky (photograph above and photographs below). The imagery appears to show the tumbling Ariane EPC (Cryogenic Main Stage) and what appears to be a fuel dump cloud, about 10 minutes after separation of the EPC from the upper stage.

In one of the all sky images, a second trail is visible too (see detail image of all sky image below): this might be the EPS Upper Stage with the satellites, around the moment it shuts down and starts its coasting phase.

All Sky image. (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge
detail of the previous image.
(c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge
All Sky image. (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlarge

detail of the previous image.
(c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle
click to enlargee
The flashing behaviour of the main trail (the suspected spent Cryogenic Main Stage) is probably due to tumbling after separation from the upper stage. On the first image (the one at the top of this post), which is a 30 seconds exposure, it is flashing 9 times, or about once every 3.3 seconds.

The images were captured by the automated routine meteor fireball patrol camera's of Astronomy Project Oostkapelle, which make continuous photographs of the night sky every clear night.

This is the approximate trajectory of the launch which I reconstructed from the Area Broadcast Warnings and information in the Arianespace presskit. It is approximate only:

click map to enlarge

Update 1, 13 Dec 2017, 23:00 UT:

The map above was based on ascend to the parking orbit of the Upper stage. Below is a 178 x 3440 km, 54.95 degree inclined reconstructed orbit for the EPC Cryogenic Main Stage, fitted to match measurements on the first image (the image in top of this post). Orbital position shown is for 18:56 UT:

click map to enlarge
 The rocket stage probably de-orbitted near the end of the first revolution, at about 20:40 UT.

 Update 2, 14 Dec 2017, 22:45 UT:

An engineer supporting the launch (@Dutchspace on Twitter) provided the info that the EPC Cryogenic Main Stage should have been in a 42 x 3340 km, 55.35 degree inclined orbit after separation and depressurization, with de-orbit at longitude 90.28 W. The elset and map below suit those constraints, and fit the observations from Oostkapelle closely:

click map to enlarge

Ariane EPC r/b                                           42 x 3340 km
1 70004U 17999C   17346.77516204 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    07
2 70004  55.3500 305.8931 2043588 353.6368 349.8559 11.97683367    04

rms 0.06

Update 3, 16 Dec 2017, 11:00 UT:

The phenomena was also imaged from Germany (see this article in Der Spiegel, which quotes me) and from Belgium.

(I thank Klaas Jobse for permission to publish his photographs. Photographs (c) Klaas Jobse, Astronomy Project Oostkapelle)

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Curious Incident of the ICBM that Launched by Night

image: KCNA

North Korea conducted a test launch of a new ICBM, the Hwasong-15 (KN-22)  on 28 November 2017. The launch was at 18:17 UT from a field just north of Pyongsong, not far from Pyongyang. It was a "lofted" test, reaching an incredible 4475 km apogee before coming down near Japan, 950 km east of the launch location and some 250 km out of the Japanese coast. It is a beast of a mobile launched ICBM:

images: KCNA

After the launch, North Korea's KCNA press/propaganda agency published several pictures, showing Kim Jung Un directing the readying of the TEL with missile, and the launch.

Several of these images, both from the missile erection sequence before launch and the launch itself, show stars. As part of the verification of a geolocation attempt, Jeffrey Lewis (@armscontrolwonk on twitter) of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, a well known wonk of the North Korean (and other) missile program, asked me to look into these starry backgrounds. Could I say something about image orientations?

I could, and it became very interesting. I initially looked at and measured these two pre-launch images (Jeffrey provided me with high-res versions of these: the ones shown here are the low-res versions from the KCNA website):

images: KCNA

These two images appear to be real (although, given what I will point out below, all images remain suspect, because they clearly aren't all real. With "real", I mean "untampered with" here). I used them to determine azimuth directions and the Local Sidereal Time (and from that UTC time) these images apparently were taken, by creating an astrometric grid over the image. In the image below, each dotted star is a reference star measured. The two images below it show the reconstructed azimuth range for each picture.

Of course, I now have reason to doubt the validity of this whole exercise. Because (hold on):

The real fun started when, yesterday evening, I started to look at the pictures of the actual launch moment. The fact that some of these show stars in itself is already something, as these images necessitate short exposures (unlike the pre-launch images above, which are long duration exposures), so you do not expect stars. But the real fun came when I looked at these stars visible. There, things clearly were not right!

Take these two images, which I have put next to each other for comparison:

Image: KCNA

The shape of the exhaust cloud and exhaust flame (and the number decal, extremities and paint job on the missile) clearly indicate they were taken from the same viewpoint, probably within a fraction of a second of each other. But take a look at the stars in the background: these then should show the same sky area, right?

But they don't!

One shows Orion, which is south-southeastwest. The other shows Andromeda with the Andromeda galaxy (this is a bit more clear in a higher resolution version I have), which is northwest. So these two images from the same viewpoint, show dramatically opposite sky areas.

Below is another example, doing basically the opposite. The mirror character of these two images, from the exhaust shape plume, exhaust flame shape, and the lack of number decal on the missile in one of the images, indicates they were taken from opposite viewing points. So the sky should show opposite sky areas on each of these, right?

images: KCNA
(NOTE: earlier version of image replaced with version correcting error in labelling)

Again, they don't.

The top one shows Orion (but with Betelgeuze missing). The bottom one shows Canis major (but with Sirius missing). Orion and Canis Major are very close to each other, south-southwest at the time of launch. The images should show opposing sky areas, but don't.

So clearly, the starry sky background was added to the imagery and is not original.

So why should North Korea have done this?

The most likely reason is simply that they did it for aesthetics. An ICBM soaring into the stars makes for good propaganda images. They apparently just didn't care enough to do it correctly.

Aesthetics seem to be important in North Korean propaganda pictures. They frequently photoshop the ears of Kim Jung Un in pictures, for example.

Or maybe they wanted to play a prank on analysts as well: they know these images will be analyzed by the west. Fooling around with clues as to the orientation of images makes it harder to glean information from them on 3-dimensional missile shape, and launch site geolocation.

To be clear (because some hare-brained individuals on social media seemed to think that was implicated, even though it nowhere is): nobody disputes that the launch was real.

It was, and it shows that North Korea now has an ICBM that can reach the whole US mainland. It can even reach my country, the Netherlands (although we are not a very likely target, I must ad):

But at least some of the launch images have been clearly doctored, and show elements that were added later. This is, of course, something we have seen earlier with North Korean propaganda images (some examples are given in the CNN article linked below).

End note: I still think the pre-launch imagery showing the TEL with missile being erected in the field is unaltered. So maybe my azimuth and timing determinations from these is are valid. But I cannot proof it, and of course now all the images must be considered suspect.

They do tally with some other evidence though, including this still I extracted from the KCNA released video, which briefly offers a glimpse of the moon, low in the west-southwest. If the video isn't doctored as well (!), this should be around 16:00-16:15 UT, some two hours before launch:

Still taken from KCNA video: moon indicated
If the video was not altered, then together with earlier images showing the missile on the TEL leaving the plant, this orientation means that any of the launch pictures showing the number decal on the missile should actually be looking Northeast to East.

My findings on the doctoring of the launch imagery featured in this CNN article from 5 December 2017 by Joshua Berlinger:  North Korea missile: Inconsistencies spotted in Hwasong-15 images

"Yay! We fooled those imperialistic coward dogs!" (image: KCNA)