Tuesday 22 October 2019

A reanalysis of the Trident SLBM test of 10 September 2013 and other tests

9 May 2019 Trident-II D5 test launch from USS Rhode Island in front of Florida
Photo: John Kowalski/US Navy

NOTE: This post reanalyses a case from September 2013 that turned out to be a Trident SLBM test launch. New information on the launch trajectory allows to glean information on the missile's apogee. The 10 September 2013 test launch trajectory is compared to those of several other Atlantic Trident test launches in subsequent years

Elements of this re-analysis were already published in May of this year in two Twitter threads here and here. As Twitter is highly ephemeral in nature, this blog post serves to preserve and consolidate the two analysis.


On 9 May 2019, I noted a Maritime Broadcast Warning issued for the period of May 9 to 12, that clearly defined the trajectory of  a Trident-II SLBM test in the Atlantic (this was was later confirmed to be a Trident test launch from the submarine USS Rhode Island):

NAVAREA IV 394/2019 

(Cancelled by NAVAREA IV 403/2019)

   091340Z TO 120026Z MAY IN AREAS BOUND BY:
   A. 28-53N 080-01W, 29-00N 079-35W, 28-55N 078-58W,
      28-38N 079-00W, 28-40N 079-37W, 28-50N 080-01W.
   B. 28-34N 076-26W, 28-24N 075-24W, 28-10N 075-27W,
      28-21N 076-29W.
   C. 27-45N 070-22W, 27-14N 068-45W, 26-48N 068-56W,
      27-18N 070-32W.
   D. 17-46N 045-38W, 16-22N 042-18W, 15-44N 042-36W,
      17-09N 045-55W.
   E. 15-47S 004-32E, 17-17S 007-04E, 17-10S 007-08E,
      17-29S 007-49E, 17-20S 007-52E, 17-19S 008-07E,
      17-28S 008-12E, 17-41S 008-04E, 17-45S 008-14E,
      18-27S 007-50E, 17-51S 006-44E, 17-43S 006-50E,
      16-11S 004-16E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 120126Z MAY 19.

071718Z MAY 2019 EASTERN RANGE 071600Z MAY 19.

The five hazard areas defined in the Broadcast Warning correspond to: the launch area in front of the coast of Florida; the splash-down zones of the three booster stages;  and the MIRV target area in front of the Namibian coast. This is what it looks like when the coordinates are mapped - the dashed line in the map below is a modelled simple ballistic trajectory between the lauch area and target area:

click map to enlarge

The case brought me back six years, to September 2013, when I was asked to look at photographs made by German astrophotographer Jan Hattenbach that showed something mysterious. I suggested it was a missile test, a suggestion which was later confirmed.

In this blog post, I revisit the 2013 analysis in the light of new information about this test, and compare it to other tests for which I could find trajectory information.

In the evening of 10 September 2013, Jan Hattenbach was making a time-lapse of the night sky near the GranTeCa dome at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands, at 2300 meter altitude.

Suddenly, a strange fuzzy objects producing cloudy "puffs" moved through the sky. I wrote about it in two blog posts in 2013 (here, and follow-up here), identifying the phenomena as a Trident-II SLBM test launch conducted from a US Navy Ohio-class submarine.

This is Hattenbach's time lapse of the phenomena: the fuzzy cloud moving from bottom center to upper left is the missile (the other moving object briefly visible above the dome is a Russian satellite, Kosmos 1410). The distinct "puffs" are likely the missile's Post-Boost Control System (PBCS) reorienting while deploying RV's during the post-boost phase:

Here is a stack of the frames from the time-lapse, and a detail of one of the frames:

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

At that time, Ted Molczan had managed to dig up a Broadcast Warning that appeared to be for the MIRV target area:

( 090508Z SEP 2013 )
HYDROLANT 2203/2013 (57) 
(Cancelled by HYDROLANT 2203/2013)

   09-18S 000-26W, 09-50S 000-32E,
   12-03S 002-39E, 13-40S 004-09E,
   14-09S 003-49E, 13-06S 001-56E,
   11-05S 000-58W, 10-55S 001-05W,
   09-56S 000-50W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140230Z SEP 13.

The case of May this year made me realize there should be Broadcast Warnings for the launch area and stage splashdown zones as well. Searching the database for such Navigational Warnings, I indeed managed to find them, as a separate Broadcast Warning:

( 082155Z SEP 2013 )
NAVAREA IV 546/2013 (24,25,26) 
(Cancelled by NAVAREA IV 546/2013)

   A. 28-57N 076-17W, 28-56N 075-54W,
      28-44N 075-11W, 28-29N 075-13W,
      28-43N 076-17W.
   B. 27-53N 073-02W, 28-14N 072-56W,
      27-58N 071-52W, 27-46N 071-08W,
      27-38N 071-11W, 27-39N 071-43W,
      27-39N 071-48W, 27-41N 072-04W.
   C. 26-42N 066-58W, 26-16N 065-36W,
      25-37N 063-38W, 25-18N 063-35W,
      25-06N 063-42W, 25-02N 063-52W,
      25-39N 065-51W, 26-07N 067-12W.
   D. 15-59N 043-47W, 16-51N 043-14W,
      15-54N 040-54W, 14-19N 038-09W,
      13-48N 038-28W, 13-30N 039-26W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140230Z SEP 13.

When the coordinates of these two Broadcast Warnings are mapped, they define a clear trajectory for this test (map below). It is somewhat different from the hypothetical trajectory we reconstructed in 2013 (the launch site is at a different location, much closer to Florida) and it is very similar to that of the recent May 2019 test. The dashed line is, again, a modelled simple Ballistic trajectory between the launch area and MIRV impact area, this time fitting the hazard areas extremely well:

click map to enlarge

The trajectory depicted is for an apogee height of 1800 km. This altitude was found by modelling ballistic trajectories for various apogee altitudes, and next looking which one of them matches the actual sky positions seen in Hattenbach's photographs from La Palma best.

In order to do so, I astrometrically measured Jan Hattenbach's images in AstroRecord, measuring RA and declination of the missile in each image using the stars on the images as a reference. The starmap below shows these measured sky positions, as red crosses.

When compared to various modelled apogee altitudes (black lines in the starmap), the measured positions best match an apogee altitude of ~1800 km:

click starmap to enlarge

So, we have learned something new about the Trident-II D5 apogee from Hattenbach's La Palma observations. At 1800 km the apogee is a bit higher than initially expected (ICBM/SLBM apogees normally are in the 1200-1400 km range).

This is how it approximately looks like in 3D (green lines depict the approximate trajectories of the missile stages). The ground range of this test was about 9800 km:

click to enlarge

Out of curiosity, and now knowing what to look for in terms of locations, I next searched the Broadcast Warning database for more Broadcast Warnings connected to potential Trident-II tests. I found six of them between 2013 and 2019, including the 10 September 2013 and 9 May 2019 test launches. It concerns additional test launches in June 2014, March 2016, June 2016, and June 2018. Putting them on a map reveals some interesting patterns, similarities and dissimilarities:

click map to enlarge

The set of Broadcast warnings points to at least two different launch areas, and three different MIRV target areas.

The two launch areas are in front of the Florida coast, out of Port Canaveral. One (labelled A in the map) is located some 60 km out of the coast, the other (labelled B in the map) is further away, some 400 km out of the coast.

I suspect that the area closest to Florida is used for test launches special enough to gather an audience of high ranking military officials. The recent test of 9 May 2019 belongs into this category, as well as a test in June 2014, and also the infamous British Royal Navy test of June 2016 (I will tell you why this test has become infamous a bit later in this blog post).

As to why area A is tapered and area B isn't, I am not sure, except that the launch location for these tests could perhaps be more defined, restrained by the audience that needs a good, predefined and safe spot to view it.

Click map to enlarge

Not only are there two different launch locations near Florida, but likewise there are at least three different MIRV target areas near Africa.

Four tests, including the 10 September 2013 test imaged by Hattenbach, target the same general area, some 1000 km out of the coast of Angola (indicated as 'impact area 1' in the map below). Two of the tests however target a slightly different location.

click map to enlarge

One of these two deviating tests is the earlier mentioned infamous Trident-II test by the British Royal Navy from June 2016.

This test has become notorious because the Trident missile, fired from the submarine HMS Vengeance, never made it to the target area. Instead it took a wrong course after launch, towards Florida (!)  and had to be destroyed. That test had a planned target area (dark green in the map above) somewat shortrange from the other tests, closer to Ascension island. This is the shortest ground range test of all the tests discussed here, approximately 8900 km, some 1000 km short of most other tests. Incidently, the choice of launch area indicates this failed test had a launch audience, so I reckon some top brass was not amused that day.

The other is the recent 9 May 2019 test. This US Navy test had a target area (red in the map above) some 400 km out of the African coast, further downrange from previous tests. This is the longest range test of all the tests discussed here, with a ground range of approximately 10 700 km, about 700 km longer than the other tests. From the choice of launch area, this test too might have had a launch audience.

The other tests had a range of 9600 to 9900 km. The different ranges could point to different payload masses (e.g. number or type of RV's), different missile configurations, or different test constraints.

There have certainly been many more Trident-II tests than the six I could identify in Broadcast Warnings (e.g. see the list here). Why these didn't have Broadcast Warnings issued, or why I was not able to identify those if they were issued, I do not know.

The Trident-II is a 3-staged Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile with nuclear warheads. The missile is an important part of US and British nuclear deterrance strategies. The missiles are caried by both US and British Ballistic Missile submarines.

click to enlarge

Edit 23 Oct 2019:
Considering the Trident-II D5 range, the US Navy clearly needs to update it's own 'fact file' here (which at the time of writing lists a maximum range of 7360 km, well short of the distances found in this analysis)


Lysergic said...

Thanks for the great write up. One question - I would assume that the third and final stage would land pretty close to the MIRVs. Where are they getting the thrust to make it that extra distance?

jim oberg said...

Excellent analysis of an unexpectedly invaluable data base. Well done.

Occasionally, air and sea traffic has observed and reported visual apparitions associated with such flights, but I have found no practical way to search for archival reports of that type. Some old observations of that type are included in this report: http://satobs.org/seesat_ref/misc/Space_clouds-Strange_Spinoff_of_the_Space_Age.pdf

With US access to full range testing zones, it seems likely that the 3-stage injection sequence runs through nominal-time 3rd stage burnout. This is definitely NOT the case for Russian ICBM tests from NW launch sites [sea and land] to the Kamchatka impact zone, which is nowhere near at the missile's full range. Consequently, it appears that such Russian tests regularly employ thrust-dumping during the final 20-30 seconds of third stage. The classic mechanization of this process is to open two lateral [forward-canted] 'dump ports' on the stage, leading to a sky spiral formation when the stage is slowly rotating. The most famous such event was seen from Norway in December 2009 but local newspaper records in NW Russia have similar descriptions going back decades -- reported in the mass media as UFOs.

I think it's fair to assume that our amateur analysis of such observations is by no means the first realization of the value of studying such 'UFO reports'. But it seem to be the first studies that can be openly reported in public.

my email jameseoberg@comcast.net

Unknown said...

Very cool. Hoping my Dad reads this. He’s a retired physicist and he took our family out at least once when I was a child to see a trident missile launch from one of those VIP Navy ships off of Florida

SatTrackCam Leiden said...

@lysergic: The third stage, upon exhaustion, in next kicked backwards by an ejection motor, so that it slides out of the surrounding equipment section that houses the warheads.