Sunday, 5 May 2019

Orbital Reflector has joined the Dark Side

image: Nevada Museum of Art

Orbital Reflector will not shine brightly in our night sky. The extraordinary Art project by Trevor Paglen and the Nevada Museum of Art (see my earlier post here) has run on the cliffs of American politics, and was sadly lost as a result.

In a May 1 press announcement by the Nevada Museum of Art, it was indicated that contact with the satellite has been lost, so the command to inflate the balloon can no longer be sent.

That command should have been sent weeks ago, but was postponed because of, basically, the childish state of US politics. The satellite operators needed to have FCC approval to inflate the balloon: approval that should have been given after enough space had been created between the various payloads of the SSO-A launch.

But then, as the Nevada Museum of Art press release puts it:

"two unanticipated events occurred: 1) Due to the unprecedented number of satellites on the rocket, the U.S. Air Force was unable to distinguish between them and could not assign tracking numbers to many of the them. Without a tracking number to verify location and position, the FCC could not give approval for inflation; and 2) The FCC was unavailable to move forward quickly due to the U.S. government shutdown."

The US Government shutdown referred to was the US Federal shutdown imposed by President Trump, when US Congress did not agree to his proposed spending bill for 2019 (notably, the demand for $5.7 billion in funding for his proposed Border Wall). The shutdown lasted until the end of January 2019 (the longest Federal shutdown ever) and affected the functioning of several Federal agencies including the FCC.

As Trevor himself put it recently:

"We needed to coordinate with the FCC to deploy the reflector, but there was no one to take our calls: there was no government".

In the weeks immediately after the SSO-A launch, the Orbital Reflector operators were in radio contact with the satellite. But over time, the radio pings became weaker and by the time the Federal shutdown was finally over and the FCC had resumed functioning again, the radio of Orbital Reflector had fallen silent.

I am very sad about this outcome. I had looked forward to observing and tracking Orbital Reflector, both to admire it as an unusual global piece of art, and to see how its orbital evolution over time would (or would not) match my earlier modelling. I am also sad because I know how much time, energy and thought Trevor, who is a personal friend, has put into this art project, one of his most challenging so far. It is a pitty it worked out this way, even more so because it happened just because of petty US politics, not flaws in the concept.

But even though the original plan was ruined due to a President that was trying to blackmail Congress into submission, Orbital Reflector still serves a goal. One of the goals of Orbital Reflector, besides being seen, was to trigger debate about who owns space, what does and does not belong there, and who gets to decide about that. That debate certainly happened around Orbital Reflector (see a previous post). In that sense, Orbital reflector was a success.

I also like how Orbital Reflector, which was meant to be the very opposite of the dark shady, anonymous and unseen use of space by the military, now has joined the Dark Side itself: unseen, but there, orbiting in anonymity, and in this state as a result of geopolitical power play the effects of which reach all the way into space.

In a way, Orbital Reflector now has become a symbol of how geopolitical powerplay corrupts everything, even Space, which in a  way was the very thing it was intended to make people think about. That's art for you, even if this developed in a way that was not quite foreseen.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Why India's ASAT test was reckless (updated)

Today, I published a large article in The Diplomat:

"Why India’s ASAT Test Was Reckless. Publicly available data contradicts official Indian assertions about its first anti-satellite test"

The paper is online here:

Summary - In this paper, I present an OSINT analysis of data available from Indian and US sources. From missile telemetry data visible in a DRDO released video (!) I reconstruct the last 2.7 seconds of the missile's trajectory relative to the trajectory of Microsat-R, showing that the missile hit the satellite under a clear upwards angle. I also discuss what can be gleaned from the orbital elements of the 84 debris pieces tracked so far.

The main conclusion is that the ASAT test was conducted in a less responsible way than originally claimed by the Indian government. First, the missile hit the target satellite on a clear upwards angle, rather than “head-on” as claimed by DRDO. Second and third, the test generated debris with much longer orbital lifetimes (up to 10 times longer), which ended up at much higher altitudes than the Indian government is willing to admit.

As much as 79 percent of the larger debris fragments tracked have apogee altitudes at or above the orbit of the International Space Station. Most of the tracked debris generated by the test orbits between 300 km and 900 km altitude, well into the range of typical orbital altitudes for satellites in Low Earth Orbit. As these debris fragments are in polar orbits, they are a potential threat to satellites in all orbital inclinations at these altitudes.This threat will persist for up to half a year (rather than the 45 days claimed by the Indian government), with a few fragments lingering on (much) longer, up to almost two years.

UPDATE, 2 May 2019:

On Twitter, I was asked to elucidate a bit more on how I did the analysis.

The delta V calculations have been done using equations from chapter 6 of "Space Mission Analysis and Design", third edition (Wetz and Larson (eds.), 1999).

The missile trajectory relative to the satellite trajectory was calculated with quite simple goniometry from the telemetry values (azimuth, range and elevation from the camera site) extracted from the DRDO video. Azimuth and range allow to calculate delta X, delta Y relative to the camera site on the flat reference plane. Elevation and range allow to calculate altitudes above the reference plane. AS the calculations are done with respect to a flat reference plane tangent to the earth surface at the camera location, this approach is sufficient. Earth curvature and true altitudes above the earth surface are irrelevant, a we are only interested in relative postions with regard to the satellite vector of movement.