Thursday, 6 August 2020

15 years of the SatTrackCam (b)log!!!

I hardly can't believe it: but today, this blog turns
15 years!

It all started very humble. The very first post on this blog, titled "Dutch weather sucks!", went up on 6 August 2005. It was a very simple, brief message, noting how I was defeated by weather that night.

Most of the early posts on this blog back in those days were such very brief and simple notes (but then, blogs back in those days were much more simple affairs). It were very basal, verbatim reports on my nightly observing activities. A lot of it was bitching on the proverbially bad Dutch weather (seriously: for a satellite tracker I am situated in one of this Worlds worst locations considering weather. And light pollution).

My equipment back in those days was very simple too: nowadays it is much more sophisticated (but still, all is done with off-the-shelf equipment that in itself need not be very expensive).

This blog is what I would call a Niche Blog: one that is dedicated to some weirdly esoteric field of interest. There are literally only a handfull of amateurs Worldwide who are actively tracking satellites, maybe 15 active observers altogether (but a lot more who like to read and talk about it). Space Situational Awareness, to use the professional terminology, is a decidedly geeky field.

The X-37B military space plane OTV 6 (click image to enlarge)

Therefore, it has always surprised me how many readers my blog draws, especially when something special is going on. In the latter case, this blog can draw an audience of thousands of readers per day. On a more typical day, it would be one- or twohundred per day at most.

Started in August 2005, this blog would grow over the next 15 years to become a much more mature, well established and apparently well-respected blog with a dedicated following of fellow satellite trackers from the SeeSat-L mailing list as well as an assorted lot of sundry general Space enthusiasts, Space Situational Awareness professionals, journalists, Missile geeks, and other people who somehow find their way to this blog.

And Spooks too. IP logs show that this blog has been visited by amongst others the CIA, the NSA and the North Koreans. It made me joke to my friends about black helicopters, unmarked SUV's, and I tongue-in-cheek asked them to send clean underwear to Gitmo in case I would suddenly vanish....  Another noteworthy, unexpected visit some years ago, was someone from the Executive Office of the US President (this was at the time that a malfunctioned Japanese spy satellite was about to come down).

Fifteen years ago, I'd never dreamt of such a wide audience. What originally was simply an on-line observing log (as reflected in the name), has by now become a well established military Space related OSINT blog.

Photography and data visualizations have been, and will continue to be, a very important part of what I write for this blog. While functional (astrometry), I always strife to make my imagery visually attractive as well.

My imagery inspired the artist and investigative journalist Trevor Paglen, so he told me, to create the chapter "The Other Night Sky" in his photobook Invisible. Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes.

With Trevor Paglen in Amsterdam in 2018

So how did it all start? During the Nineteen-nineties, previous to my interest in satellites (which came from an interest in satellite reentries), I was an active meteor observer within the Dutch Meteor Society. Back in 2005 I realised that the software we used to astrometrically measure meteor images, would be suitable for measuring positions on satellites in images too. Around that time I also discovered this weird but fascinating world of observers tracking classified satellites! So I started to experiment with that, and after a period of trial-and-error and discovering what was important (accurate timings and camera calibration!), I started to get usefull results. Soon, I became a regular contributor of positional measurements on classified satellites to the Seesat-L list.

Starting simply with a compact camera (a Canon IXUS gifted by a friend), the equipment has grown over the years. A significant quality change came when I landed a post-doc, got some money and turned to using a DSLR (initially a Canon EOS 400D; currently a Canon EOS 80D) and an over time growing  suit of suitable lenses (Canon EF 2.0/35 mm; Canon EF 2.5/50 mm, Samyang 1.4/85 mm; Samyang 2.0/135 mm; and in the past also a Zeiss 2.8/180 mm).

For Low Earth Orbit, I now preferably use a sensitive video camera (a WATEC 902H) with either a  Canon 1.8/50mm or Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens, and a GPS time inserter, as timing remains the bottleneck of using a DSLR. The DSLR is now mainly used by me for astrometry on high altitude objects (HEO and GEO), and for obtaining pretty pictures of Low Earth Orbit objects.

Over the past few years, radio was also added as an observing tool (although mostly focussing on Human Spaceflight communications and  capturing weather satellite imagery).

Click image to enlarge

As this blog matured, and I gained more insight into spaceflight dynamics (graciously helped along by people like Ted Molczan), the posts became more elaborate. The scope widened. I started to publish analysis, and these started to gather attention. A few years ago, my interest in the North Korean Space program expanded into an analytical interest into the North Korean missile program (which introduced me to the funny lot of people that populate the Missile Twitter community), and ICBM tests in general.

At one point, some of my analysis outgrew this blog, resulting in more formal articles written for The Space Review and The Diplomat (see links in the sidebar). Apart from my blog posts and articles, I also frequently present imagery and small preliminary analysis through my Twitter account.

Journalists increasingly found me, and I started to get quoted and interviewed by websites, printed news media, TV stations and radio stations in the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and the USA. I even appeared in a PBS documentary, being interviewed by Miles O'Brien about an analysis of North Korean launch imagery.

with Miles O'Brien for a PBS documentary, December 2017 (aired in February 2018)

When I started this blog 15 years ago, I never dreamt it would take off this way. It has been a surprising journey: starting as a rank amateur 15 years ago, I am now, partly thanks to this blog, actually employed as a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) consultant at Leiden University in a project with the Space Security Center of the Royal Dutch Air Force. It goes to show how things that start small and simple, over time can grow very serious.

The shift towards more professional SSA involvement was the result of a terrible tragedy. On 17 July 2014, a Malaysian Airlines airliner, flight MH17 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Ukraine. 298 people lost their lives, including 192 Dutch. For me this tragedy was extra unnerving at the time, as my girlfriend and I were about to fly the same route with KLM/Malaysian only three days later...

I wrote a blog post about the tragedy (the first of several) detailing how Space-based data from the classified SBIRS satellite constellation and various SIGINT satellites might shed light on where, and by inference by whom, the missile was launched.

This blog-post was subsequently picked up by a Dutch Member of Parliament, Pieter Omtzigt, who then contacted me. He used the information I provided as a base for questions in a Parliamentary committee session in 2015, and next invited me to give expert testimony in a Hearing of the Permanent Committee of Foreign Affairs of Dutch Parliament on 22 January 2016. It was part of a large, a day long session that included Radar experts, hotshots from Air Traffic Control, the Intelligence Services, and experts in international Law. I had to write a position paper for it, and during the session, give a brief presentation and then answer questions by Parliament members.

Giving testimony at a Permanent Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on MH17, 22 January 2016

This caught the attention of  the then brand new Space Security Center of the Royal Dutch Air Force, who contacted me a few days after the hearing. They were very interested in what I was doing, especially since they wanted to create their own tracking capacity. This led to several meetings and eventually two projects, one completed and one currently running. The astronomy department of Leiden University hired me as a consultant as part of these projects. What started as a hobby, turned professional (this has happened to me before by the way: with meteorite research. That started as a hobby too but led to a research job at the Dutch National Museum of Natural History, and a 30-page scientific paper in Meteoritics & Planetary Science).

Those who have followed this blog for several years, know that the content is ecclectic (mirroring my wide interests). Apart from imagery and analysis of classified satellites, it also features posts on missiles, and occasionally features more off-topic subjects such as meteoric fireballs, meteorites, comets and asteroids.

This reflects my wide and varied interests, which is apparent in much of what I do. I am a scientist with a PhD in Palaeolithic archaeology, but I have worked as a scientific researcher in totally different fields too, including Planetary Geology/Meteoritics and now also SSA.

So that is the story of how this blog came into being, and how it changed my life.

What were some of the highlights of those 15 years writing this blog and doing OSINT analysis on classified space and missiles? Among the more notable for me were:

The shootdown of the malfunctioned spy satellite USA 193 in 2008: the first time my blog started to gather a large audience I think;

The uncontrolled reentry of the Japanese spy satellite IGS 1B (resulting in several visits to my blog by the Executive Office of the US President);

The uncontrolled reentry of GOCE, my entry into reentry modelling;

The launch window analysis of North Korea's Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 satellite;

The posts that lead to my involement in the MH17 case (and ultimately to my current job);

The analysis of North Korean Ballistic Missile launch imagery (here, here, here , here, here, and here a.o.), and the subsequent interview with Miles O'Brien;

The analysis of amateur observations of the SIGINT satellites PAN/NEMESIS 1 and MENTOR 4 in the context of leaked Snowden files, leading to a publication in The Space Review;

The analysis of the close flyby of the ISS by a US spy satelllite, USA 276, leading to a publication in The Space Review;

The analysis of a Trident-II SLBM test captured by chance on photograph by an amateur astronomer from La Palma, in the context of other Atlantic Trident tests;

The uncontrolled reentry of Tiangong 1 (which saw me on radio in the UK and USA);

The analysis of an Indian ASAT test, leading to a publication in The Diplomat;

The analysis of a (de-)classified KH-11 image from a tweet by Donald Trump;

The observation of the first Starlink train in May 2019 (with a video that went viral and has now been watched over 1.8 million times)

It has been a long (and fun!) ride: and it ain't over yet! Here is to fifteen more years of the SatTrackCam (b)log!

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

NROL-129 payloads located on-orbit

click image to enlarge

On July 15, 2020, at 13:46 UT, the NRO launched NROL-129 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops, using a Minotaur IV rocket (a modified Peacekeeper ICBM). This launch delivered four Classified payloads to Low Earth Orbit: USA 305, USA 306, USA 307 and USA 308.

The payloads and the Orion 38 Minotaur upper stage were located on orbit by amateur trackers last week. They are in 54-degree inclined, ~570 x 580 km orbits (see image above).

The payloads are bright, reaching magnitude +3 (naked eye) on a good pass. A fifth object which we believe to be the Minotaur's Orion 38 upper stage is about 2 magnitudes fainter and variable in brightness.

The images below, which I made in evening twilight of August 3 with a Canon EOS 80D and EF 2.5/50 mm lens, show two of the four payloads, USA 307 and USA 308, crossing Corona Borealis about a minute behind each other:

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

The four payloads seem to be grouped in two pairs, the two objects in each pair about 1 minute apart in pass-time at zenith. The two groups itself are about 8 minutes separated. We'll have to see what happens with the payload configuration over the next few weeks, but satellites operating in close pairs suggest to me that NROL-129 might be a SIGINT mission aimed at geolocating radio signals, similar to the French ESSAIM constellation.

The two payload pairs might be represented by the two mission patches (first two patches below), one showing a male warrior, the other a female warrior. Or maybe they represent the satellites making up each pair instead, as in a 'couple'.

The launch patch (third patch below) shows the Minotaur logo, and four stars in top which might represent the four payloads. In addition, it shows 7 stars at the left side, which probably represent that this was the 7th Minotaur IV launch. The single star at lower right might symbolize that this launch was the first Minotaur IV launch for the NRO.

The image below shows the position of the four objects when the orbits are propagated backwards to a few minutes after launch. The position and track matches a launch from Wallops well:

The moment of payload separation is unknown, but media sources suggest this was after a prolonged coasting phase. A coincidence analysis that I performed is hampered by the fact that the payloads probably manoeuvered several times, but does suggest that payload separation was somewhere between 14:10 and 14:40 UT, near the first apogee pass in the southern apex of the orbit. As Ted Molczan noted, release was probably in two directions (the upper stage rotating 180 degrees inbetween releasing the D/E and A/B pair)) to create the two pairs, the D and E objects released first, and then the A and B objects.

The video below is a compilation of 5 video segments I shot over 10 minutes near local midnight of 2/3 August, showing the objects pass in order of appearance: USA 305, USA 306, the Orion 38 Minotaur R/B, USA 307 and USA 308:

The first observation of one of the payloads, as a UNID, was done by Russell Eberst in Scotland on 27 July. Ted Molczan first suggested it was one of the NROL-129 payloads. A new observation of two of the objects was done by Leo Barhorst in Germany on July 29. One night later, Cees Bassa in the Netherlands performed a planar search and observed all five objects. I followed with observations the next night, and have now imaged them a couple of times.

A sixth object was initially reported by Cees Bassa. It was very faint and seen only once. It appeared to be in a somewhat differently inclined orbit than the other objects. It was not seen during later plane searches, including a plane search by me. We now believe this mystery object to be a chance sighting of a cubesat unrelated to the NROL-129 launch.