Wednesday, 28 April 2021

USA 314 (NROL-82) imaged


click to enlarge

Last Monday 26 April at 20:47:00 UT, ULA launched a classified payload for the NRO under the launch designation NROL-82. The payload is now designated USA 314. I wrote about the launch and that it is almost certainly an ADVANCED ENHANCED CRYSTAL KH-11 electro-optical reconnaissance satellite in an earlier post.

The payload was picked up on the first orbit by radio observer Scott Tilley in Canada, and next, guided by the radio observations, Cees Bassa (who is just like me in the Netherlands) optically imaged it on the second and third orbit.


I tried to image it from Leiden on the second orbit as well, but as it turns out it passed outside my camera field during that pass.

The next night, and with a more firm search orbit based on the data from the previous night available, I did succesfully image it. The photograph in top of this post was made with a Canon EOS 80D camera and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens (at F2.0, 1600 ISO, 1 second exposure). 

I also obtained video, using the WATEC 902H2 Supreme with a 1.8/50 mm lens:

The payload is designated USA 314 (catalogue nr 48247, COSPAR 2021-032A) and as usual CSpOC does not publish orbital data. But our observations show that it is in a 528 x 755 km, 98.1 degree inclined sun-synchonous orbit.

The orbital plane is even closer to that of USA 224 than anticipated: a difference of only 1.1 degree in RAAN and 0.2 degrees in orbital inclination. The orbital altitude is somewhat different and the orbital eccentricity is less than our initial guess. Perhaps it will manoeuvre over the coming days/weeks to the same altitudes as USA 224, perhaps it will not: we will see!

So in all, the NROL-82 payload's orbit is pretty much what was expected, apart from a slightly different initial orbital altitude.

USA 224 and the new payload USA 314 currently move almost in phase, and as a result they are relatively close, with continuous sight of each other. It is well possible that USA 224 is imaging the new payload as a post-launch health checkup.

The image below shows the coplanar character of the USA 224 and USA 314 orbits, and the spatial proximity in viewing distance of each other:

click to enlarge

As I pointed out in a previous post, based on historical patterns I expect that, after a checkout-phase that may take a couple of weeks, the new USA 314 will take over from USA 224 in the KH-11 primary East orbital plane. USA 224 will then likely be manoeuvered into a lower orbit (~400 km) and its orbital plane will be moved to the 'secondary' East plane, some 10-20 degrees east in RAAN of the current orbital plane.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

An upcoming French ICBM/SLBM test [UPDATED TWICE]

click map to enlarge

UPDATE (see end of post for more info): the test happened and it was an M51 SLBM

Navigational Warnings HYDROLANT 1140/21 and NAVAREA IV 337/21 which appeared today suggest that France will be test-firing some sort of ICBM or SLBM over the northern Atlantic between April 28 and May 21. 

As indicated by the position of area A, the launch will be from from DGA Essais de Missiles, a missile base of the French Military on the coast of the Gulf of Biscaye, some 70 km southwest of Bordeaux. The target area appears to be north of  Bermuda, some 5500 km from the launch site.

250005Z APR 21
HYDROLANT 1140/21(and NAVAREA IV 337/21)
   A. 45-30.00N 006-39.00W, 44-35.00N 001-28.00W,
      44-26.00N 001-16.00W, 44-18.00N 001-17.00W,
      44-14.00N 001-36.00W, 45-08.00N 006-45.00W.
   B. 47-33.00N 019-01.00W, 47-21.00N 015-35.00W,
      45-29.00N 015-33.00W, 45-41.00N 019-12.00W.
   C. 35-50.00N 070-08.00W, 35-50.00N 063-38.00W,
      34-15.00N 063-38.00W, 34-15.00N 070-08.00W.
   D. 46-38.12N 039-31.05W, 45-37.02N 039-15.53W,
      45-53.52N 036-47.10W, 46-54.92N 036-59.92W.
3. CANCEL THIS MSG 211100Z MAY 21.

I have mapped  the four hazard areas from the Navigational Warning in the map in top of this post. Areas A, B and D are along a simple ballistic trajectory. Area C, the target area north of Bermuda, is not (as can be clearly seen), so either the post-boost vehicle or the dummy MIRV's fired from it will take a different course at some point. 

Note that the dog-leg which I have drawn in the map is very hypothetical and not very realistic: its purpose just is to show that the target area deviates from the initial missile trajectory. [added note: it is much more likely that the trajectory changed is effected much earlier in the  sequence]

Depending on the time of, and weather conditions during, this test launch, it might generate some UFO reports from the southwest French and northern Spanish coast.

As far as I am aware of, the French only have SLBM's in operational service at this moment. Their landbased ICBM's were mothballed in 1996. 

So the launch might be a (land-based) launch of an M51 SLBM. The ground range and size of the areas A,B and D with respect to to the launch site are similar to those of another recent French SLBM test, fired from a submarine in front of the Breton coast on June 12, 2020 (I wrote about that test here).

Click to enlarge


I spoke with Joseph Trevithick for this article in The Drive which also has insights from several other experts.

What I did not know, but learned from the article, is that the DGA Essais de Missiles has a pool with a submerged launch platform, so they can simulate SLBM launches from a submarine. So if it is another M51 test, this makes the choice of the launch site less odd.

Here is some footage from an earlier SLBM test from this submerged platform at DGA Essais de Missiles:

(28 April 2021)

The French Ministry of Defense has announced that a successful test with an M51 SLBM was indeed conducted from DGA Essais de Missiles in the morning of 28 April. Bulletin (in French) here.

In the hours around the test, French and US military monitoring planes were in the air near the target area north of Bermuda:


The twitter account of the French Direction générale de l'armement published this video of the launch:


The image below, which is from the bulletin put out by the French Ministry of Defense, may or may not show the actual missile fired:

Thursday, 22 April 2021

NROL-82: an upcoming new KH-11 EVOLVED ENHANCED CRYSTAL launch [UPDATED]

image: ULA

(updated 27 Apr 2021 with first observational orbit, see end of post)

If the weather and the launch Gods cooperate, ULA will launch a Delta IV Heavy with a classified payload for the NRO on 26 April 2021. The launch is designated NROL-82 and the payload will likely receive the designation USA 314. In a tweet from April 19, ULA mentions a prospective launch time of 20:46 UT.

Several lines of evidence lead us to believe that the payload is a KH-11 EVOLVED ENHANCED CRYSTAL optical reconnaissance satellite, colloquially also known as a 'Keyhole'. It is the kind of satellite that makes these kind of detailed pictures of areas of interest for the NRO.

A map in the ULA Mission Overview for this launch, and the Navigational Warnings issued for this launch (NAVAREA XII 173/21 and HYDROPAC 1221/21) provide information on the launch azimuth and from that the orbital inclination targetted. Likewise the position and time window of the upper stage deorbit area provides - in a very broad sense- information on the orbital altitude aimed for. Together they indicate a launch into a sun-synchronous Low Earth Orbit with an orbital inclination near 98 degrees. This is a very familiar orbit, as we will discuss later in this post.

Below is a map I prepared depicting the hazard areas from these Navigational Warnings as well as the launch trajectory I calculate based on this information:

click map to enlarge

The listed times along the track are for launch at 20:46 UT into the 250 x 1020 km, 97.9 degrees inclined estimated orbit below:

 NROL-82 (USA 314)          for launch on 26 April 2021 at 20:46:00 UT
1 70002U 21999A   21116.86527778  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    03
2 70002 097.8600 222.0898 0548970 157.1680 337.2110 14.78203944    02


The text of the Navigational Warnings:

220434Z APR 21
NAVAREA XII 173/21 (also: HYDROPAC 1221/21)
   A. 2016Z TO 2257Z DAILY 26 THRU 28 APR
      34-38N 120-40W, 34-36N 120-30W,
      34-07N 120-39W, 34-08N 120-44W.
   B. 2016Z TO 2257Z DAILY 26 THRU 28 APR
      22-57N 120-46W, 23-47N 125-18W,
      26-27N 124-45W, 25-36N 120-08W.
   C. 2016Z TO 2257Z DAILY 26 THRU 28 APR
      13-28S 121-20W, 10-47S 138-34W,
      00-47S 136-41W, 03-52S 119-54W.
      63-14S 174-16W, 32-49S 159-58W,
      33-23S 156-28W, 64-16S 168-07W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 300129Z APR 21.


Area D from the Navigational Warnings, located in the southern Pacific Ocean, appears to be the deorbit area for the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS). The DCSS deorbit takes place some two hours after launch, just after the start of the second revolution (with the deorbit burn happening over the Arctic, near the end of the first revolution).

As mentioned above, the orbit that seems to be targetted is one that is very familiar in terms of orbital inclination and sun-synchronous character. It is the typical orbit of a KH-11 EVOLVED ENHANCED CRYSTAL electro-optical reconnaissance satellite. Several years ago I discussed the KH-11 orbital constellation in depth on this blog ("Past and future of the KH-11 Keyhole/Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL constellation" - 2013). As a side note, the type of rocket used to launch NROL-82 is consistent with a KH-11 launch too: the Delta IV Heavy has a long history of launching KH-11's.

Currently there are at least three, and possibly four active KH-11 satellites on orbit: USA 186 (2005-042A), USA 224 (2011-002A), USA 245 (2013-043A), and possibly USA 290 (2019-004A).  The latter, USA 290, is in an odd orbit for a KH-11 and its identification as a KH-11 is open to questioning (I will discuss this later in this blog post).

Historically (see "Past and future of the KH-11 Keyhole/Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL constellation"), new KH-11 satellites are launched into one of two primary orbital planes some 48 degrees apart in RAAN: a "primary East" plane and a "primary West" plane. The time window and the 20:46 UT launch time given by ULA for the upcoming April 26 launch corresponds well with targetting the "primary East" plane. This orbital plane results in passes around local noon and midnight. The KH-11 satellite currently occupying this orbital plane is USA 224 launched 10 years ago in 2011.


USA 224 imaged in June 2014. click image to enlarge

KH-11 constellation (minus USA 290), situation mid-April 2021 (polar view). Click to enlarge

The orbital plane of USA 224 passes over the launch site of NROL-82, Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, around 21:20 UT on April 26. This is a difference of some 35 minutes with the launch time (20:46 UT) from the ULA tweet.

In 2011, when USA 224 itself was launched to replace USA 161 in the primary East plane, the launch occurred some 20 minutes before the USA 161 orbital plane crossed over the launch site (a similar time difference would hence see launch around 21:00 UT for the upcoming April 26 launch).

If history is our guide, the following sequence of event will likely happen. To start with, NROL-82 will be launched into the KH-11 Primary East plane, with an orbital inclination of ~97.9 degrees and orbital altitude of ~250 x 1020 km, almost co-planar with USA 224. The illustration below shows the orbital plane situation around orbit insertion. Note the similarity of the orbital planes of NROL-82 and USA 224:


expected situation just after launch of NROL-82. click to enlarge


After a check-out period of a few weeks, the NROL-82 payload (likely designated USA 314) will take over the primary plane mission from USA 224, the satellite previously occupying this orbital plane. 

Next, after USA 314 has taken over its role, USA 224 will be moved away from the primary plane, into a new orbital plane with RAAN some 10-20 degrees East of the primary plane: the so called '"secondary East plane". It will also lower its apogee and take up a ~400 km altitude orbit. In this new orbit it will continue to be operational for several years, entering its extended mission phase. 

From this moment on, for the first time since the deorbit of USA 161 in the winter of 2014-2015, all the two primary planes and all the two secondary planes will be occupied by a KH-11 again. The orbital constellation will become something like that in the image below:

Approximate KH-11 constellation after expected rearrangement later this year. Click to enlarge


How about USA 290?

You will have noted that after a brief initial mention, I carefully left USA 290, launched in 2019, out of the discussion so far. So what about that object? Is it a KH-11?

USA 290 (2019-004A) was launched as NROL-71 from Vandenberg on a Delta IV Heavy on 19 January 2019 (see an earlier blogpost) and it was suspected by some noted analysts to be a KH-11. It however went into a weird, 73.6 degree inclined ~400 km altitude orbit that is not sun-synchronous and nothing like previous KH-11 orbits. So, had the NRO broken with the previous 'classic' pattern of the KH-11 orbital constellation and were they trying something new?

The identification of  USA 290 as a KH-11 never has been sitting well with me. The odd orbital inclination and non sun-synchronous character of the orbit gives few reasons to think it is an IMINT mission.

In light of the apparent return to the known 'classic' KH-11 constellation with the upcoming launch of NROL-82, I have again started to foster these doubts. Maybe USA 290 isn't a KH-11 after all but something else, something experimental (readers of this blog will have noted that the past 4-5 years, a lot of NRO launches appear to be experimental, going into 'new' previously unseen types of orbit. Some of these are, I suspect, radar imaging satellites).

Ted Molczan has recently suggested that USA 290 is a KH-11, and that its odd orbit is inspired by that of the notorious 'Misty' stealth IMINT satellites of the 1990-ies which were launched in ~65 degree orbits. Basically, he argues that USA 290 is a 'Misty' imaging satellite without the stealth!

I remain agnostic at best about the identity of USA 290. Perhaps, if new payloads are launched into similar orbits over the coming years, the picture will become more clear. For now, I regard USA 290 as an oddity, and not necessarily a KH-11.

UPDATE 27 Apr 2021 11:00 UT

Cees Bassa optically observed the NROL-82 payload on the 2nd and 3rd revolution. Radio observers including Scott Tilley are also tracking it.

Based on a hybrid optical/radio orbit computed by Scott Tilley, the orbital altitude is somewhat different than expected, the orbit less eccentric: but the orbital plane is even closer to that of USA 224.

The orbital plane is very close to that of USA 224 indeed: a ~1 degree difference in RAAN and 0.1 degree difference in orbital inclination.

Orbital altitude currently appears to be about 525 x 760 km, i.e. less eccentric than our initila pre-launch estimate. That of USA 224 is 256 x 997 km.

The NROL-82 payload might manoeuvre in the coming days and weeks in order to have it's apogee and perigee altitudes match with  that of USA 224.

click to enlarge

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