Tuesday, 6 April 2021

LUCH (Olymp-K), an eavesdropping SIGINT snooping around commercial comsats


click image to enlarge

Back in 2016, I published an article in The Space Review (A NEMESIS in the sky: PAN, Mentor 4 and Close Encounters of the SIGINT kind) about the mysterious US classified satellite PAN, and Mentor 4, another classified US satellite.

Both are SIGINT satellites launched in 2009, that are positioned close to commercial telephony communications satellites in GEO in order to eavesdrop on their communications. While Mentor 4 (an ADVANCED ORION) dedicatedly covers Thuraya 2, PAN (NEMESIS 1) moved from satellite to satellite in a 'roving' role every few months during the first 5 years of its operational existence. Its sister ship CLIO (NEMESIS 2) launched in 2014 has done pretty much the same.

But (of course) the USA is not the only country playing this game. In the same year that CLIO (NEMESIS 2) was launched, the Russian Federation launched LUCH (2014-048A), aka OLYMP-K or OLIMP-K. In 2015, in an essay in The Space Review, Brian Weeden pointed out that LUCH was roving from satellite to satellite too, possibly eavesdropping on their communications. This created headlines at the time. By all means, LUCH/OLYMP-K is the Russian equivalent of PAN and CLIO.

The diagram below shows the frequent repositionings of LUCH/OLYMP-K over the years ( a table with major repositionings is at the end of this post):

click diagram to enlarge

LUCH has recently (in the second week of February, 2021) been relocating from longitude 3 W to 8 W and is now positioned near EUTELSAT 8 WEST B (2015-039B). Before the relocation, it had been close to ABS-3A (2015-010A) for several weeks. 

I shot this image below on March 29th, when LUCH and EUTELSAT 8 WEST B were about 90 km apart:


click image to enlarge

The image was made with a CANON EOS 80D and Samyang 2.0/135 mm lens (10 seconds at 1000 ISO) and was a by-product of targetting MEV-2 and several classified objects in this stretch of sky.

The table below gives longitudinal positions for LUCH/OLYMP-K. The table focusses on major relocations.

Dates refer to he moments the longitude appears to get stabilized, and have generally been preceeded by a period of drift. Also indicated is what satellite was closest to LUCH/OLYMP-K at the start of each stable period. Note that in several cases, multiple satellites were close by and possibly targetted as well.

TABLE: positions of LUCH/OLYMP-K since late 2014 

DATE          LON      NEAR

17-02-2021    08.1 W   EUTELSAT 8 West B       2015-039B
06-11-2020    03.1 W   ABS-3A                  2015-010A
28-09-2020    04.9 W   Eutelsat 5W B           2019-067A
11-05-2020    01.1 W   Intelsat 10-02          2014-058A
28-03-2020    21.5 E   EUTELSAT 21B            2012-062B
28-11-2019    70.6 E   EUTELSAT 70B            2012-069A
22-10-2019    68.4 E   Intelsat 20             2012-043A
25-08-2019    65.9 E   Intelsat 17             2010-065B
01-07-2019    64.0 E   Intelsat 906            2002-041A
21-02-2019    60.0 E   Intelsat 33E            2016-053B
28-10-2018    57.0 E   NSS 12                  2009-058A
03-07-2018    49.9 E   Turksat 4B              2015-060A
07-06-2018    48.0 E   Eutelsat 28B            2008-065B
27-04-2018    47.5 E   Yahsat 1B               2012-016A
17-01-2018    41.9 E   Turksat 4A              2014-007A
25-10-2017    38.1 E   Paksat 1R               2011-042A
18-08-2017    32.7 E   Intelsat New Dawn       2011-016A
14-09-2016    09.9 E   Eutelsat 10A            2009-016A
11-01-2016    01.1 W   Intelsat 10-02          2004-022A
05-10-2015    24.3 W   Intelsat 905            2002-027A
26-06-2015    18.1 W   Intelsat 901            2001-024A
22-02-2015    96.4 E   Express AM-33           2008-003A

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

[UPDATED] Cosmic Ballet: approach of MEV-2 and Intelsat 10-02 imaged

image from 2 April 2021. Click image to enlarge

At geosynchronous altitudes, a cosmic ballet is happening between Intelsat 10-02 (2004-022A) and MEV-2 (2020-056B). I imaged the pair last night, spurred to do so by Bob Christy. The pair was almost due south at 30 degrees elevation for me. 


click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

A small complication was imposed by the current Corona-curfew, as it means I cannot go out to the spot where I normally photograph geosynchronous objects: so I had to target the camera through the loft window (which has a limited FOV).

MEV-2 ("Mission Extension Vehicle 2") is the second of Northrop-Grumman's satellite servicing missions. It's mission is to dock to Intelsat 10-02, a communication satellite launched in 2004, and extend the lifetime duration of this satellite by 5 years, providing it with fresh fuel and a new engine.

MEV-2 has made a number of close approaches to Intelsat 10-02 over the past weeks (see Bob Christy's detailed account of their movements on his website), in preparation for docking..

The MEV-2 predecessor MEV-1 successfully docked to Intelsat 901 in February of 2020 and then brought it from a graveyard orbit into an operational geosynchronous orbit. It also had to make several close approach attempts before effecting the docking at the time.

In the image above, I have labelled the brightest object as Intelsat 10-02 and the fainter one as MEV-2. Space-track has it the other way around, but according to observers who are following the duo for a while, they have mixed up the ID's. This often happens with objects close to each other in GEO, as it is acknowledgedly difficult to keep track of which is which. In this case, the brightness difference of the objects provide a  way to discern them. One expects Intelsat to be brighter than MEV-2.

The image is a 10-second exposure with a Canon EOS 80D and a Samyang 2.0/135 mm lens at ISO 1000.

UPDATE 1  30 March 2021 22:00 UT

I imaged MEV-2 and Intelsat 10-02 again this evening. They are still in the same relative position to each other as yesterday. The image below is a stack of 10 images (10s exposure each): the stack brings out the fainter MEV-2 a bit better than in yesterday's single image sabove.

click image to enlarge

Space-Track has, in their latest orbital updates, switched the identities back to what they should be, now designating the fainter object as MEV-2. You'd almost say they read my tweets... ;-)

UPDATE 2, 2 April 2021 13:00 UT:

Lats night was clear, so I imaged the duo again, after they came out of earth shadow. Due to the good phase angle, they were quite bright. Several other geosats visible in the vicinity as well. The image below was shot at 00:52:57 - 00:53:07 UT on April 2 (1600 ISO, 10 seconds, Canon EOS 80D + Samyang 2.0/135 mm):

click image to enlarge

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

[UPDATED] Reentry predictions for the Falcon 9 RB 2021-017BN

click diagram to enlarge

In my previous post, I discussed 2021-017BN, the Falcon 9 upper stage from the March 4 Starlink launch that should have been deorbitted after 1.5 revolutions on March 4th, but didn't.

It is still on orbit. At the moment of writing, 23 March 2021 at 11:00 UT, it is in a 217 x 200 km orbit according to the latest available elements from CSpOC, and it will stay on orbit for a couple of days to come. But the end is near: the orbital altitude of the rocket stage is quickly decaying, as can be seen in the diagram below:

click diagram to enlarge

My current reentry prediction (see diagram in top of post and table below) is that it will come down in the early hours of March 26 (2021). My prediction, based on modelling in GMAT R2020a using the MSISE90 model atmosphere, appears to be well in line with the TIP from CSpOC so far.

[UPDATE: my final post-cast predicted reentry at 26 Mar 04:34 UT, which is some 35 minutes too late. It is based on a 2/3rd maximum drag surface value. Interstingly, using the maximum drag surface leads to a reenrty at 3:56 Ut, within minutes f the actual time]

Revisit this post for prediction updates in the coming days.

orbit epoch     pred. date     reentry time (UT)
21081.600725    26 Mar 2021    02:33 +- 16.8 hr
21081.922054    26 mar 2021    03:36 +- 15.5 hr
21082.113317    26 Mar 2021    03:59 +- 14.7 hr
21082.216601    26 Mar 2021    03:40 +- 14.1 hr
21082.278149    26 Mar 2021    03:43 +- 13.8 hr
21082.462749    26 Mar 2021    05:29 +- 13.3 hr
21082.585776    26 Mar 2021    05:29 +- 12.7 hr
21082.708770    26 Mar 2021    05:37 +- 12.1 hr
21082.954651    26 Mar 2021    06:13 +- 11.1 hr
21083.138960    26 Mar 2021    05:03 +-  9.9 hr
21083.261785    26 Mar 2021    05:15 +-  9.4 hr
21083.296296    26 Mar 2021    05:20 +-  9.2 hr
21083.507296    26 Mar 2021    05:28 +-  8.3 hr
21083.875164    26 Mar 2021    05:26 +-  6.5 hr
21084.120127    26 Mar 2021    05:59 +-  5.4 hr
21084.181325    26 Mar 2021    05:20 +-  5.0 hr
21084.486963    26 Mar 2021    05:00 +-  3.5 hr
21084.548018    26 Mar 2021    03:19 +-  2.8 hr
21084.974688    26 Mar 2021    04:46 +-  1.1 hr * post-cast
21085.095602    26 Mar 2021    04:34 +-  0.5 hr * final post-cast

UPDATE  26 March 2021  12:30 UT:

The reentry happened last night, over North America, and was widely seen from the US States Washington and Oregon, near 4:00 UT (March 26 UT: that is 9 pm on March 25 local time for that area).

CSpOC's final TIP places the reentry at 03:58 +- 1 min UT. This time matches the reports from Washington and Oregon well, and based on the last orbit it would indeed place the rocket stage near the NW United States coast.

The listed geographic position in the TIP, 24.5 N, 151 W, does however not match well (it is further down the track, near Hawaii, corresponding to the Falcon 9 position about 6 minutes prior to the observed reentry). We have  noted such discrepancies more often in recent TIP messages. In this case, I half suspect the position was that given by their reentry model, and they forgot to update it when the SBIRS detection of the actual reentry fireball came in.

click map to enlarge

My own final "post-cast" places reentry some 35 minutes after the actual reentry.

Here are some of the reentry sightings as reported on Twitter:


UPDATE 2 April 2021 23:00 UT:

Debris has been recovered from this reentry. In Grant Country, Washington, a Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel (COPV) was found on farmland.



Friday, 12 March 2021

Apparent failed deorbit of the Starlink-18 Falcon 9 upper stage [UPDATED]

On 4 March 2021, after several delays, SpaceX launched the 18th Starlink batch (Starlink-18 or V1.0-17). While the launch and deployment profile appears to have been similar to other recent Starlink launches, it appears that something went wrong with the Falcon 9 upper stage near the end of its mission.

On March 8th, Polish observer Adam Hurcewicz reported a bright, fast object in the orbital plane of this launch, passing a few minutes before the main Starlink "train". It was seen on subsequent nights and by other observers as well: the video above is from the early morning of March 9. At it's brightest, this fast moving object reportedly reaches mag -3. It does not appear to match a known object from earlier launches. It also didn't match supplementary TLE's for the Starlink-18 payloads from Celestrak (which are based on State Vectors from SpaceX). The Polish observers therefore speculated it was the Falcon 9 upper stage from the launch. 

But that would be against expectations. The Falcon 9 upper stage normally does not stay in orbit: it is de-orbitted soon after payload release, usually about 1.5 revolutions (about 2.5 hours) after launch. So if this object is the Falcon 9 upper stage, this suggests  something went wrong and it failed to deorbit.

The speculation that this object is the Falcon 9 Upper Stage can now be bolstered by additional information. The first orbital element sets for this Starlink launch have appeared on the CSpOC portal  Space-Track late yesterday (11 March), with catalogue numbers ranging from 47722 to 47786. And they show an extra object!

With Starlink launches, 64 objects are usually catalogued: 60 payloads and four 'Falcon 9 debris' pieces. The latter 'debris' pieces are the payload stack retaining rods: four metal rods which keep the satellite stack together on top of the upper stage. They are jettisoned upon payload release.

An elset for the Falcon 9 upper stage is usually not released by CSpOC: as it normally stays on-orbit for barely more than 1 revolution, it is not catalogued.

But this time, not 64 but 65 objects have been catalogued. The extra 65th object must be the Falcon 9 upper stage, and it indicates it stayed on orbit for more than a few revolutions. Which lines up with the observations by the Polish (and later also other) observers.

Although the 65 objects, at the moment of writing, do not have been individually ID-ed by CSpOC yet (all have the temporary designation "TBA - TO BE ASSIGNED"), the 60 payloads, four retaining rods and the upper stage as such can be clearly identified among them. The objects separate in 3 groups in terms of orbital altitude. The 60 payloads all have (for orbits with epoch 12 March) a perigee above 280 km. The four retaining rods have clearly lower orbits: their perigee is near 243-246 km and apogee near 268-278 km.

The 65th object, which by inference must be the Falcon 9 upper stage, is in a still lower orbit . It has the smallest semi-major axis of all of them with perigee near 237 km and apogee near 270 km. The orbit for this object, catalogue nr 47782 (2021-071BN) also closely matches the observations by the Polish observers.

So why is the Falcon 9 upper stage still on-orbit? It suggests of course that the deorbit went not as planned, i.e. it failed for some reason (e.g. the rocket engine refusing to restart).

That the Falcon 9 upper stage should have deorbitted on March 4, after 1.5 revolutions, is clear from the Navigational Warnings that were issued in connection to this launch. Navigational Warning HYDROPAC 695/21 delineates the usual elongated deorbit zone in the Indian Ocean familiar from earlier Starlink launches:


021948Z MAR 21
   041024Z TO 041326Z MAR,
   ALTERNATE 051004Z TO 051306Z MAR
   29-43S 060-07E, 24-55S 064-27E,
   38-45S 084-30E, 45-12S 099-45E,
   49-46S 119-13E, 50-42S 138-19E,
   48-50S 156-44E, 51-46S 158-08E,
   54-42S 148-32E, 56-20S 131-03E,
   55-52S 107-50E, 49-11S 085-05E,
   34-32S 064-13E.
3. CANCEL THIS MSG 051406Z MAR 21.

I have plotted the zones from the Area Warnings connected to the launch in this map, along with the groundtrack for the first 1.5 orbital revolutions. The large elongated red zone in the southern Indian Ocean is the planned deorbit area from Navigational Warning HYDROPAC 695/21:

click map to enlarge

The position of the reentry hazard zone indicates a reentry was planned around 10:55 UT (March 4), 1.5 revolutions (2h 30m) after launch, following a deorbit burn some 30 minutes earlier.

But the deorbit evidently did not happen as it should have: the upper stage is still orbiting as we speak, a week after launch. The issued Navigational Warning for the deorbit hazard zone strongly suggests this is not intentional.

So how long will the upper stage stay in orbit? The current orbit is low (237 x 271 km), and the object is large (16 x 3.66 meter, with a mass of 4.5 tons) so eventually the rocket stage will have an uncontrolled reentry, somewhere between latitudes 53 deg N and 53 deg S. 

A first assessment using both SatEvo and a GMAT simulation suggests that the reentry will probably happen in the last few days of March or the first few days of April.

UPDATE 14 March 2021:
CSpOC has now added identifications to the objects, and indeed object 47782 is now listed as "Falcon 9 RB"

Monday, 8 February 2021

A possible (now CONFIRMED) Trident-II SLBM test launch between February 9 and 14, 2021 [UPDATED]

click map to enlarge

A Navigational Warning, NAVAREA IV 117/21, appeared yesterday, and is suggestive of an upcoming Trident-II SLBM test in the Atlantic. I have posted on such test launches before.

This is the text of the Navigational Warning:

 071431Z FEB 21
 NAVAREA IV 117/21(GEN).

    091340Z TO 140226Z FEB IN AREAS BOUND BY:
    A. 28-56N 76-17W, 28-56N 75-34W,
       28-36N 75-34W, 28-43N 76-17W.
    B. 28-02N 73-18W, 28-17N 73-13W,
       27-47N 71-11W, 27-34N 71-17W,
       27-44N 72-10W.
    C. 26-25N 67-23W, 26-47N 67-10W,
       25-44N 63-47W, 25-06N 63-57W,
       25-32N 65-52W.
    D. 17-10N 45-30W, 17-37N 45-11W,
       16-53N 43-06W, 15-23N 41-22W,
       14-46N 41-42W, 16-11N 44-26W.
    E. 06-00S 09-39W, 05-13S 09-08W,
       06-37S 06-56W, 07-17S 07-22W,
       06-55S 07-57W, 07-00S 08-05W.
 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140326Z FEB 21.

The map in top of this post shows the hazard areas A to E from this Navigational Warning plotted, and a fitted ballistic trajectory. Together they define what strongly looks like a Trident-II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) trajectory

Area 'A' is the launch area where the submarine is located; areas 'B', 'C' and 'D' is where respectively the first, second and third stages of the missile splash down; area 'E' is the target area of the warhead(s).

The indicated range, from the distance between area's A and E, is about 8400 km. That is somewhat shorter than most earlier Trident-II tests in the Atlantic.

Earlier tests in the Atlantic typically had a range near  9800 km, in one case even 10 600 km (see my overview here). So this test falls short from a  typical test by about 1500 km. 

An earlier clearly shorter range was however indicated for the infamous June 2016 Royal British Navy Trident-II test, which would have had a 8900 km range with a target area west of Ascension Island if it had not failed. The range of the upcoming February 2021 test is 500 km shorter than that of this June 2016 test, with a target area slightly more north and the launch area further out of the Florida coast. 

The launch area is nevertheless a familiar one: one of two areas regularly used for Atlantic Trident test launches

It is the same as that for the 10 Sep 2013, March 2016 and June 2018 Trident tests. It is the area labelled 'launch area B' in the map below, which plots the launch areas of several previous Trident tests. The figure comes from this previous post and is discussed there (including a suggestion for why there might be two distinct launch areas).

click map to enlarge

The target area near Ascension Island and shorter range might perhaps indicate that this will be a British Royal Navy test with the SLBM launched from a Vanguard-class submarine rather than a US Navy test, but this is by no means certain. It could also mean a US Navy test with new hardware, e.g. a more heavy dummy warhead or a new stage engine.

US Navy tests are usually acknowledged after the test, so it will be interesting to see whether such an acknowledgement will appear from either the US or British Navy.

UPDATE  10 Feb 2021 10:50 UT

Overnight, images and footage have appeared from Florida and Bahama residents that show an exhaust plume, indicating that the test indeed took place, near 23:30 UT on Feb 9. These are a few of them:


The imagery shows the sun-illuminated exhaust plume of the missile. The missile itself is in space by that time, ascending towards its ~1200-1800 km apogee.

I did a quick calculation: for a launch at 23:30 UT on 9 February 2021, the missile (and its expanding exhaust plume) should break into sunlight about a minute after launch once above ~147 km altitude. I have indicated the sunlit part of the trajectory in the map below in yellow. This means that the exhaust plume on the imagery is from either the second or third stage of the missile.

click map to enlarge

UPDATE 16 Feb 2021:

The Drive reports that the US Navy has now confirmed that this was a Trident test. The name of the submarine from which the missile was launched has not been released.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Virgin Orbit to launch first satellite for the Royal Dutch Air Force this year


Brik-II patch (collection author)

Today, Virgin Orbit and the Dutch Ministery of Defense announced that Brik-II, the first satellite owned by the Royal Dutch Air Force (RNLAF), will be launched this year on an upcoming LauncherOne mission.

Brik-II is a 6U cubesat that will host various experiments, reportedly including communications relay, space weather determination, and ELINT. Brik-II was built for the RNLAF by ISIS/ISISpace. Launch was originally scheduled for 2019.

About the launch, Virgin Orbit notes that :

"As part of the Netherlands’ broader plan to pursue a responsive space capability, RNLAF, Virgin Orbit and ISIS will pursue a demonstration of “late-load” integration, mating the payload to the rocket shortly prior to launch. This exercise will prove critical in pioneering the payload processing capabilities required to execute responsive launch"

The satellite is named after a previous pioneering Brik: Brik was the name of the very first aircraft of the "Luchtvaartafdeeling" ("Air Department") of the Dutch Army, a forerunner of the Royal Dutch Air Force. This first Brik was built by Martinus van Meel in 1913.

This is that first aircraft called Brik, photographed in 1916 with Lt. Versteegh behind the stick:

The first Brik. Collection Netherlands Institute for Militairy History (NIMH)

"Brik" is a facetious name used in Dutch for both an old cart, old car or old bicycle, as well as a two-masted sailing vessel (the English 'Brig'), and a word used for a poor quality building brick (hence the patch in top of this post).

Saturday, 9 January 2021

First optical observations of the NROL-108 payloads USA 312 and USA 313

In the early morning of January 9, I made the my first optical observations of the two payloads, USA 312 and USA 313 (2020-101A & B)  from the December 19 NROL-108 launch (see my earlier post here for more info on this somewhat enigmatic launch). Both were bright: USA 313 was about magnitude +4.5 and USA 312 about +5.5.

Radio observers already detected one of the payloads on December 20, and the second on January 5th. I used their preliminary TLE's to optically hunt for the objects this morning, which saw a clear frosty sky in Leiden. [edit: as it turns out, Russell Eberst observed both objects one day before me. I somehow had missed that]

USA 313, the leading object, was 13 seconds early and as much as 2.4 degrees off-track relative to the January 5 radio elset. USA 312, the chasing object, was about 1 second early and half a degree off-track relative to the January 5 radio elset.

USA 312 was about 2 minutes behind USA 313. Their orbits are co-planar and on the same orbital altitude, and the true distance between the two was about 900 km at the moment of observation. They are likely meant to operate as a pair, and it will be interesting to see whether they will perform any proximity manoeuvres in the future.

A second fainter object chased USA 312: this turned out to be STARLINK-1632. Their close proximity is almost certainly coincidence, and the result of the increasing number of Starlink satellites on orbit.

The video in the top of this post, shot with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens, shows USA 313 first, and then USA 312 with Starlink-1632 close by.


Click image to enlarge