Sunday, 31 May 2020

Imaging a pass of the Crew Dragon Demo-2, and a close fly-by of the Crew Dragon by USA 245! [UPDATED]

click photograph to enlarge

Yesterday May 30 at 19:22 UT finally saw the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 with astronauts Hurley and Behnken on board, returning a human spaceflight capability to the USA after nine years of having to hitch rides on a Russian Soyuz.

When the Crew Dragon first passed over the Netherlands some 23 minutes after launch (see map with the launch trajectory in  a previous post), the sun was still just above the horizon for my Leiden location. I nevertheless tried with binoculars, using the moon as a guide, but saw nothing.

But two hours after launch on the second revolution, near 21:18 UT, we did have a visible pass, albeit in late twilight and very low above the horizon: at a maximum elevation of only 9 degrees over the horizon and a range of almost 1200 km!

To observe this pass I went by bicycle to Cronesteyn Polder at the edge of Leiden, where I have an uninterupted view to the horizon, and set up my photo camera. First, at 23:14 local time (21:14 UT), I saw the ISS pass with the naked eye low on the southwest horizon. I then took to binoculars and waited for the Crew Dragon, which should pass somewhat lower in the sky some 4 minutes after the ISS.

I picked the Crew Dragon up in my 10 x 50 binoculars starting around 21:17:30 UT, while it was passing through Crater and Corvus. I watched it untill it entered Earth shadow at about 21:19:00 UT. It was not particularly bright, due to the low elevation and still bright sky background. By comparison to stars in Corvus I estimate it to have been magnitude +3 to +3.5, too faint at this elevation and with this sky brightness to be seen naked eye. It was at a range of almost 1200 km at that time, over Northern Spain!

Click photograph to enlarge

The image above shows the Crew Dragon during this pass. It is a stack of 45 exposures of 0.5 seconds each, with a Canon EOS 80D and SamYang 1.4/85 mm lens at F2.0, 500 ISO, 21:17:40 - 21:18:09 UT (May 30). Stars in the image belong to the constellations Crater and Corvus. The small breaks in the trail are the brief moments between the successive photographs that make up the stack.

The image below is another stack, this time of 52 photographs with the same camera setup, made between 21:18:25 - 21:18:59 UT. You see the Crew Dragon disappear in Earth shadow at the left end of the image. The image is slightly wobbly - my tripod was on a soft grassy surface. I like this image best though:

Click photograph to enlarge

It was pretty cool seeing the Crew Dragon, while knowing it was carrying two astronauts!

But it becomes even more interesting: in two images around 21:18:19 UT, I have another brighter satellite moving under a slant upwards in the opposite direction. You can see it in the upper right corner of this image (several lay observers saw this brighter satellite too and mistook it for the Crew Dragon):

Click photograph to enlarge

This object is the classified US KH-11 spy satellite USA 245 (2013-043A).

And as it turns out, it was really close to the Crew Dragon, and my image truely captures, within a few seconds, the actual moment of closest approach! This was serendipity, as I had not planned this and the presence of USA 245 took me by surprise.

Nominally, the minimum distance between USA 245 and the Crew Dragon during this fly-by was only 125 km with closest approach happening at 21:18:17 UT. USA 245 was flying this distance 'above' the Crew Dragon. Both objects were over northern Spain around the time of the flyby, with the point of closest approach over 43.40 N, 2.50 W, on the Basque coast.

There is some uncertainty in the actual fly-by distance (see below), but not much.

This is the output from a COLA analysis for this fly-by:

DATE      UT          SSC   NAME    TARGET      KM  
5/30/2020 21:18:16.99 39232 USA 245 CREW DRAGON 125.3

My analysis is based on CSpOC elset epoch 20151.85044152 for the Crew Dragon, and amateur elset 20146.86101776 for USA 245. There is some leeway in the exact time and distance of the flyby, for two reasons:

1)  from my observations, the Crew Dragon was some 3 seconds late on the used elset;

2)  the USA 245 elset epoch, based on amateur observations that include my own, was 5 days old. However, the sky position of USA 245 in the image is very close to the ephemeris, so the 5-day-old orbit nevertheless seems a good fit to reality.

Taking these points into account, I estimate that the uncertainty in the minimum distance between both objects is no more than 30 km, and only a few seconds in time.

In the map below, I have plotted the trajectories of both objects (I have accounted for the fact that the Crew Dragon was ~3 seconds behind on the elset in this map). USA 245 was moving nortwest-wards, the Crew Dragon southeast-wards.

Note that the USA 245 trajectory was situated some 125 km above that of the Crew Dragon. So to be clear, there was no danger of a collision. This is a safe distance.

click map to enlarge

 This is an animation of the close fly-by:

In fact, it could very well be that this close flyby was intentional, and that USA 245 was actually imaging the Crew Dragon at that moment.

USA 245 is a KH-11 electro-optical reconnaissance satellite: a satellite that resembles the Hubble Space Telescope and makes high resolution images of the earth surface (similar to this infamous one) with resolutions of 10 cm or better.

There have long been rumors, reported by amongst others NBC News, that KH-11 satellites were used to inspect the outside of Space Shuttles post-launch (e.g. that of the inaugural STS-1 flight) for tile damage. We also suspect that KH-11 satellites inspect X-37B's after launch, based on the odd jumps in launch times of the latter (see this analysis by Bob Christy).

So there is a real possibility that this close flyby of the Crew Dragon by USA 245 was intentional, and used to image the spacecraft to see if it was not damaged and everything deployed as it should.

UPDATE 1 June 2020 13:50 UT:

I am retracting the notion of intentionality of this encounter. Both Michael Thompson and I have done an extended analysis of potential KH-11 encounters with the Crew Dragon, where we looked at potential encounters had the Crew Dragon launched on the original launch date of 27 May.

There appear to have been no particularly close encounters would the Crew Dragon have launched on May 27, which calls into question the intentionality of the encounter on May 30.

That said: it is still possible that imaging of the Crew Dragon took place, as of course this would have been a perfect opportunity. I guess we'll never know. Unless, as someone put it to me in private, tongue in cheeck: "if they put it in a briefing, maybe Trump will tweet about it!". 

The analysis also found a second close encounter for May 30, with the KH-11 satellite USA 224 (2011-002A), on 30 May 20:07:50 UT, some 45 minutes (half a revolution) after launch, with a nominal miss distance of 105 km. This however was a pass where the Crew Dragon was in Earth shadow, so not illuminated (which does not preclude infra-red imaging however). COLA output for this encounter:

DATE      UT          SSC   NAME    TARGET      KM 
5/30/2020 20:07:50.30 37348 USA 224 Crew Dragon 105.4

1 comment:

Phil said...

Hi Marco,

I imaged USA 245 during this pass from Manchester England. I've emailed you one of my images.