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"