Friday 5 April 2019

First debris pieces from the Indian ASAT test of 27 March catalogued

click to enlarge

Today the first 57 orbital element sets for Microsat-r debris, debris from the Indian ASAT test on March 27, appeared on CSpOC's data-portal Space-Track (I have posted on aspects of this Indian ASAT test earlier: here, here and here). They have catalogue numbers 44117 - 44173. The analysis below is based on these orbital element sets.The elements confirm what we already knew: that Microsat-r (2019-006A) was the target of the ASAT test.

The image above plots the orbit of the 57 debris fragments, in red. The white orbit is the orbit of the International Space Station ISS, as a reference. Below is a Gabbard diagram of the debris pieces, plotting their perigee and apogee values against their obital period. The grey dashed line gives the orbital altitude of the ISS, as a reference:

click diagram to enlarge

Again, it is well visible that a large number of the 57 fragments (80% actually) have apogee altitudes above the orbit of the ISS, well into the altitude range of operational satellites. This again shows (see an earlier post) that even low-altitude ASAT tests on orbiting objects, creates debris that reaches (much) higher altitudes. The highest apogee amongst the 57 debris pieces is that of 2019-006AR at 2248 km.

Below is the apogee altitude distribution as a bargraph (including a kernel density curve), again showing how pieces do reach the altitudes of operational satellites:

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Most of the created debris in the current sample of tracked larger debris has apogee altitudes between 400 and 700 km. It is interesting to compare this to a similar diagram for debris from the 2008 US ASAT demonstration on USA 193, "Operation Burnt Frost":

click diagram to enlarge

The Operation Burnt Frost debris distribution peaked at a somewhat lower apogee altitude, ~250 km (the same orbital altitude as the target, USA 193) while the peak of the Indian ASAT debris apogee distribution is higher, ~400-500 km (there could however be detector bias involved here).

It is interesting to note that both distributions appear to be double-peaked, both having a secondary peak near 700-800 km. I remain cautious however, as that could be due to detector bias.

Overall, the two distributions are similar, as I already expected.

The question now is, how long this debris will survive. To gain some insight into the expected lifetimes, I used Alan Pickup's SatEvo software to make a reentry forecast for the debris fragments. It suggests that most of the debris will stay on orbit for several weeks to months: by half a year from now, most of it should be gone however, except for a few lingering pieces. Note that this forecast should be taken with some caution: it assumes a constant solar activity at the current level, and takes the NDOT values of the element sets face value.

The following bar diagram charts the forecast number of debris objects reentering per week (the x-axis being the number of weeks after the ASAT test) resulting from the SatEvo analysis:

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Again, the result is quite similar to the actual lifetimes displayed by the USA 193 debris fragments after Operation Burnt Frost in 2008 (see an earlier post, with the same diagram), as expected:

click diagram to enlarge

Tuesday 2 April 2019

Why even low altitude ASAT intercepts are a threat to operational satellites in higher orbits

Click diagram to enlarge. Orbital data from CSpOC

So how big a threat is this Indian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test of 27 March to operational satellites at higher altitudes, given that it was performed at relatively low altitude (283 km, see an earlier post)?

In an earlier post, I noted that the US ASAT demo on USA 193 ("Operation Burnt Frost") in February 2008 was a good analogue (read here why). Like the March 27 Indian ASAT test on Microsat-r, the USA 193 ASAT demonstration happened at relatively low altitude, even lower than the Indian test: 247 km. So where did debris from that test end up, altitude-wise?

The diagram above is a so-called "Gabbard Diagram" which plots apogee and perigee altitudes of individual debris fragments from the 2008 USA 193 intercept against their orbital period. (apogee is the highest point in its elliptical orbit, perigee the lowest point). The diagram can be of help to show insight into how high fragments are ejected in an ASAT test. Please do note that it concerns a subset of well-tracked larger fragments: most of the smaller fraction of debris, difficult or impossible to track, is absent from this sample.

As is visible in the diagram, many fragments ended up being ejected into highly eccentric ("elliptical") orbits with apogee, the highest point in their orbit, well above the intercept altitude. Many ended up with apogee altitudes well into the range of operational satellites (typically 400+ km).

I have indicated the International Space Station (ISS) orbital altitude (its current perigee altitude at ~407 km, not that of 2008) as a reference. Some 64% of the larger fragments in the pictured sample ended up with perigees apogees (well) above that of the ISS. Quite a number of them even breached 1000 km altitude.

This makes clear that even low altitude ASAT tests generate quite some debris fragments that can endanger satellites at higher altitudes. True, most of it reenters within hours to a few days of the test, but still plenty remain that do not. In my earlier post I showed the orbital lifetime of these same fragments from the USA 193 ASAT demonstration. Many survived on orbit for several weeks to months, occasionally even up to almost two years after the test:

click diagram to enlarge

So it is clear that a "harmless" low altitude ASAT test on an orbital object does not exist (note that I say orbital and not sub-orbital). Every test generates a threat to satellites at operational altitudes. Hence NASA administrator Bridenstine was quite right in his recent condemnation of the test. It is indeed very likely that debris fragments ended up in orbits with apogee at or above the orbital altitude of the ISS and other operational satellites in Low Earth Orbit.

An earlier, failed (?) ASAT test by India on 12 February 2019

image: DRDO

In my previous two posts (here and here), I analysed the much discussed Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test by India taking out Microsat-r on 27 March 2019.  Now the story gets a new twist.

Yesterday, Ankit Panda had a scoop in The Diplomat: it turns out that India attempted an ASAT intercept earlier, on February 12, 2019, which ostensibly failed according to US government sources.

Ankit is well sourced within the US Government, and his sources told him that a missile launch was observed on February 12th, which reportedly failed 30 seconds after lift-off.

A NOTAM and Area Warning had been given out for that day by the Indian government, for the "launch of an experimental flight vehicle" (the latter detail mentioned in the NOTAM but not the Maritime Area Warning). The Indian Government later published a bulletin omitting any reference to a missile failure, instead suggesting the succesful test of an "interceptor missile", launched from Abdul Kalam island, against an "electronic target".

 HYDROPAC 448/2019 (63,71)
(Cancelled by HYDROPAC 485/2019)

DNC 03.
   20-48.07N 087-02.23E, 18-07.27N 086-25.02E,
   01-46.62N 087-30.51E, 02-57.91N 093-50.49E,
   18-33.79N 088-46.21E, 20-48.95N 087-06.99E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140745Z FEB 19.

( 080903Z FEB 2019 )

The hazard area from the Area Warning for Feb 12 is very similar to that of the March 27th ASAT test. Compare these two maps, for February 12 and March 27 (the track shown is the groundtrack of Microsat-r, the target of the March 27 ASAT test. The blue and red areas indicated, are the hazard areas from the Area Warnings):

February 12 Area warning and Microsat-r track
March 27 Area Warning and Microsat-r track.

The hazard areas are virtually indistinguishable, and so is the location of the Microsat-r ground track. Microsat-r clearly was the target ("electronic" or not) of the February 12 attempt as well. Even the pass times are close for both dates: compared to March 27, the Microsat-r pass over Abdul Kalam happend about 1 minute earlier on Feb 12. With the benefit of hindsight, it is all very clear.

Indeed, press reports based on the mentioned Indian Government bulletin give 11:10 am Indian Standard Time (05:40 UT) as the time for the Feb 12 attempt. From the listed time, we can deduce that the virtual intercept would have happend at 271 km altitude, some 12 km lower than the 283 km altitude of the succesful March 27 intercept.

Microsat-r was in a slightly different orbit on February 12th: a slightly more eccentric, but stable 240 x 300 km orbit. During the succesful ASAT test of March 27, Microsat-r was in a slightly more circular 260 x 285 km orbit.

click diagram to enlarge

An open question is whether the February 12 attempt was a rehearsal and not a real attempt to hit and kill the satellite; or if it was a real attempt but failed. If Ankit Panda's US government sources are correct that the missile failed 30 seconds after lift-off, it would seem a failure, unless the cut-off after 30 seconds was intentional. Another open question is whether the US government was aware on February 12 that it was an ASAT test (see also this Twitter thread by Brian Weeden).

With the February 12th attempt so soon after launch of Microsat-r (January 24th), it would appear that Microsat-r was specifically launched to function as an ASAT target.