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