Friday, 21 February 2020

Launching cubesats from the X-37B OTV 5: lifetime modelling with GMAT

image: USAF

Last week, CSpOC issued catalogue entries for three cubesats released as part of the X-37B mission OTV 5.

It concerns USA 295 (2017-052C), USA 296 (2017-052D) and USA 297 (2017-052E). No orbital data are given, but the catalogue entry did explicitly indicate that all three are no longer on orbit.

That cubesats were released as part of this X-37B mission had been clear from a US Air Force statement made after completion of the OTV 5 mission in October last year. The wording of that statement is however ambiguous: while most analysts take it to mean the cubesats were released by OTV 5, it is also possible that they were released as ride shares by the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that launched OTV 5 in 2017.

In this blog post, I will do an academic exercise aimed at guessing when, at the latest, these cubesats could have been released by OTV 5, assuming release from the latter.

OTV 5, the 5th X-37B mission, was launched from Cape Canaveral on 7 September 2017. It landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on 27 October 2019, after 780 days in space. Unlike previous missions that were all launched in 38-43 degree inclined orbits, this one was launched into a 54.5 degree inclined orbit. Combined with the fall launch date, this meant it took our tracking network a while to locate it on-orbit: the first positive observations were made in April 2018, half a year after launch.

From April 2018, when we started to track it, to October 2019, when it landed, OTV 5 orbitted at various orbital altitudes between 300 and 390 km altitude (see diagram below):

click diagram to enlarge

The CSpOC catalogue entry lists all three cubesats that were released as part of this mission as "no longer on orbit". Assuming they ended their orbital life by natural decay (rather than, for example, being retrieved by OTV 5 again at a later stage, which is in theory certainly possible!), the fact that they were no longer on orbit by 11 February 2020 might yield some constraints on when they could have been released.

To get some idea of the orbital lifetime of a cubesat released from OTV 5, and spurred on to do so by Jonathan McDowell, I ran several GMAT models in which I modelled a 5 kg 3U cubesat released at three altitudes: 400 km, 360 km and 325 km.

We do not know the actual orbital altitude of OTV 5 at that  moment. Nor do we know when the cubesats were released. Hence the three altitude variants. The start point of the modelling was an assumed release into the OTV 5 orbit on October 7, 2017, one month after launch of OTV 5.

For each cubesat, the models were run in two variants: one with the cubesat in minimal drag orientation (0.01 m2 cross section), and one with the cubesat in maximal drag orientation (0.03 m2 cross section). I used the MSISE90 atmosphere in the model, with historic Space Weather data for October 2017 to February 2020 and estimated solar and geomagnetic activity parameters from the 'early cycle' variant of the GMAT Schattenfile for dates past early 2020.

For the three assumed orbital altitudes and an assumed release one month after OTV 5 launch, the GMAT data produce the orbital decay plots below. In these plots, the red data are for minimal drag orientation, the blue data for maximal drag orientation. If the cubesats in question were similar to NRO's Colony II cubesats, then the red minimum drag orientation curves probably represent the orbital evolution best. If they were more like Colony I cubesats, then the blue maximal drag curves are more representative.




Taking the minimal drag variants, and under the assumption that the cubesats were 3U cubesats and not retrieved on-orbit by OTV 5 at a later stage, the suggestion is a release below 350 km. Released at higher altitudes, they would still be on-orbit.

Assuming reentry before 11 February 2020 after natural orbital decay, a minimal drag orientation and release no lower and no higher than 325 km, the latest possible moment of release would be late August 2018, give or take a month to account for the uncertainties.

It appears we can rule this out however, because we know that OTV 5 was orbiting at 380 km altitude, not 325 km altitude, at that time. So the best guess (although one under many assumptions) is a release some time before August 2018, i.e. within 1 year after the launch of OTV 5.

It is still possible that the cubesats were released at a later date, but next retrieved while still on-orbit by OTV 5. If the cubesats were smaller than a 3U cubesat, a later release than August 2018 is possible as well.

Finally, given the ambiguity in US Air Force Statements on the matter, it is also possible that the cubesats were released from the Falcon 9 upper stage on the day of launch.

For more about the X-37B, and especially the active myth-making that seems to be at play around this secretive space-plane, see my earlier post here.


OTV 5 rising in April 2018. Click image to enlarge

10 comments:

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