Sunday, 27 June 2021

Navigational Warnings have appeared for the launch of the first Dutch military satellite, Brik-II [UPDATED]


artist impression of Brik-II in space (The Netherlands Ministry of Defense)

It was originally scheduled for launch in 2019, and postponed several times. But it now seems it will finally happen, on or near June 30: the launch of the Netherlands' first own military satellite, a 6U cubesat named 'Brik-II'.

The ministry of Defense of the Netherlands is partner in several already launched military satellites, but this will be the first satellite that is truely it's own. 

Brik-II was built by the Dutch aerospace company ISISPACE in cooperation with Delft Technical University, Oslo University and NLR and will be operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF).

It is a small 6U cubesat (10 x 20 x 30 cm, weighing 10 kg) that contains equipment for communications relay, for Space Weather monitoring, and for ELINT (see my earlier post on Brik-II here).


image: The Netherlands Ministry. of Defense


Brik-II will be launched by Virgin Orbit as part of their  'Tubular Bells, part 1' mission that launches a number of small payloads: apart from Brik-II for the RNLAF, it will launch three or four (sources differ on the number [edit July 1: it were four payloads]) payloads for the US Dept. of Defense, and two payloads for the SatRevolution company.

The launch is an airborne launch, using a two-stage LauncherOne rocket launched from the Virgin Orbit Boeing 737 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' in front of the California coast.

images: Virgin Orbit

The launch was postponed several times, including this month, but Navigational Warnings have now appeared indicating an aimed launch date of 30 June (with backup dates July 1-5). 

The 3-hour launch window runs from 13:00-16:00 UT [edit: launch eventually was at 14:47 UT]. According to Virgin Orbit, the orbit aimed for is a 60-degree inclined circular orbit at ~500 km altitude. [edit] An infographic by the Royal Dutch Air Force mentions an orbital inclination of 60.7 degrees.

This is the navigational warning, NAVAREA XII 292/21:

 262041Z JUN 21
 NAVAREA XII 292/21(18,21).
    301300Z TO 301600 JUN, ALTERNATE
    1300Z TO 1600Z DAILY 01 THRU 05 JUL
    A. 33-36-44N 120-23-05W, 33-24-22N 120-17-14W,
       32-55-44N 119-55-39W, 30-38-19N 118-13-14W,
       28-24-39N 116-37-52W, 28-03-32N 116-17-09W,
       28-10-00N 116-05-44W, 28-24-41N 116-11-12W,
       29-07-31N 116-36-05W, 30-50-51N 117-46-19W,
       33-08-50N 119-32-16W, 33-33-26N 119-54-35W,
       33-45-27N 120-06-00W, 33-43-27N 120-16-02W,
       33-36-44N 120-23-05W.
    B. 23-13-25N 112-20-09W, 23-51-12N 113-00-01W,
       24-04-05N 113-17-34W, 24-00-35N 113-35-42W,
       23-49-04N 113-49-26W, 23-23-22N 113-46-59W,
       22-46-17N 113-39-25W, 22-01-49N 113-03-13W,
       21-54-11N 112-57-20W, 21-46-52N 112-49-48W,
       21-41-03N 112-38-21W, 21-40-45N 112-26-55W,
       21-44-25N 112-12-12W, 21-52-03N 112-03-22W,
       22-03-39N 111-58-08W, 22-13-42N 111-57-29W,
       22-26-28N 112-02-59W.
 2. CANCEL THIS MSG 051700Z JUL 21.

I have plotted the two areas on the map below, along with the trajectory for a 60-degree inclined ~500 km orbit, with times along the trajectory valid for launch at 13:00 UT, the start of the window (it will, however, probably launch a little after that: the second map is for a 60.7 degree inclined orbit and denotes times in minutes after launch):

click map to enlarge
click map to enlarge

While Virgin Orbit mentions a 500 km target orbit for 'Tubular Bells', earlier news reports on Brik-II mentioned a 600-700 km orbital altitude.

Brik-II is named for an earlier 'Brik', the name of the very first aircraft of the RNLAF progenitor, the 'Luchtvaartafdeeling', 108 years ago, in 1913:

The first Brik, photographed in 1916. Photo: Netherlands Institute for Military History


"Brik" has several meanings in Dutch. Originally it was a name for a type of ship (equivalent to the English 'Brig'), and it was also used for carts. Later, it became a name for old bicycles and old, decrepit  cars. "Brik" in addition is one of several Dutch names for a brick, hence the mission patch for Brik-II:

Brik-II mission patch (collection author)

Update 1 July 2021:

CSpOC TLE's have appeared on Space-Track for 8 objects from the launch: the seven payloads and the LauncherOne upper stage. They have catalogue numbers 48871 to 48878. The first object, 48871, is in a lower orbit  of 418 x 504 km and almost certainly the LauncherOne upper stage. The seven others are close together in higher, approximately 495 x 522 km orbits, inclined between 60.66 to 60.70 degrees.

Of these objects, either object D, E, or F (catalogue nrs. 48874, 48875, 48876) appears to be Brik-II.

My pre-launch estimate for the orbit appears to have a quite reasonable agreement with the eventual orbits for these objects (the green arrow and object in the images below indicates my pre-launch estimate. the plot is for 1 July 6:35 UT,  about 16 hours after launch):

click images to enlarge

Thursday, 17 June 2021

An intriguing apparent Missile Defense (?) test from Kodiak and Kwajalein [UPDATED: hypersonic, not Missile Defense]


click map to enlarge

Update 22 Oct 2021: this turns out to have been Navigational Warnings for a test with a Hypersonic glider weapon, not Missile Defense. See update at bottom of the post.


A Navigational Warning issued on June 16 seems to point to a possible Missile Defense test on June 21, with missile launches from Kodiak Island in Alaska (the Pacific Space Port Complex) and the Kwajalein Test Range in the Marshall islands.

Below is the text of the Navigational Warning in question, NAVAREA XII 271/21, defining four areas A to D. I have mapped the areas in the map in top of this post, with one of several possible interpretations (in this interpretation, an interceptor is launched from Kwajalein to intercept an ICBM launched from Kodiak. The flight distance involved for the interceptor in this scenario does not sit well with me though).

160922Z JUN 21
NAVAREA XII 271/21(16,19,81).
   210830Z TO 211430Z JUN, ALTERNATE 
   0830Z TO 1430Z DAILY 22 THRU 25 JUN 
   A. 57-29N 152-20W, 57-20N 152-11W, 
      56-39N 153-28W, 56-41N 153-33W,
      57-11N 152-47W, 57-16N 152-43W,
      57-19N 152-38W, 57-21N 152-38W,
   B. 51-08N 160-22W, 50-58N 159-50W,
      51-01N 159-26W, 51-17N 158-58W,
      51-42N 158-35W, 52-29N 158-16W,
      52-32N 158-24W, 51-51N 159-35W,
      51-23N 160-14W.
   C. 33-50N 171-41W, 33-44N 171-27W,
      36-52N 169-25W, 38-40N 168-15W,
      39-58N 167-47W, 40-02N 167-59W,
      39-15N 168-39W, 38-27N 169-18W,
      37-05N 170-02W.
   D. 12-45N 172-48E, 08-11N 166-38E, 
      08-56N 166-01E, 13-34N 172-11E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 251530Z JUN 21.

There is an additional Navigational Warning, NAVAREA XII 270/21, defining several areas west of Hawaii for several dates around the possible test, in the general area where the launch trajectories from Kodiak and Kwajalein seem to meet. One of the dates issued (nr 2, highlighted in red) has a time window that, while not similar, does overlap with the time window of warning NAVAREA XII 271/21:

150910Z JUN 21
NAVAREA XII 270/21(19).
   22-42.0N 172-13.0W, 22-28.2N 171-01.3W, 
   21-08.4N 171-20.8W, 21-22.0N 172-35.0W.
   A. 30-37.0N 169-02.0W, 30-13.0N 167-20.0W, 
      29-07.0N 167-41.0W, 29-24.0N 169-04.0W.
   B. 24-05.0N 171-50.0W, 23-50.7N 170-36.7W, 
      22-28.2N 171-01.3W, 22-42.1N 172-13.0W.
   C. 23-06.0N 178-55.0W, 23-06.0N 175-15.0W, 
      21-40.0N 175-15.0W, 21-40.0N 178-55.0W.
   D. 22-00.0N 167-58.0W, 22-00.0N 166-36.0W, 
      20-19.0N 166-36.0W, 20-19.0N 167-58.0W.
   A. 29-10.0N 169-54.0W, 28-25.0N 167-54.0W, 
      27-28.0N 168-11.0W, 28-06.0N 170-23.0W.
   B. 23-50.7N 170-36.7W, 23-37.0N 169-28.0W, 
      22-14.8N 169-48.4W, 22-28.2N 171-01.3W.
   C. 23-06.0N 178-55.0W, 23-06.0N 175-15.0W, 
      21-40.0N 175-15.0W, 21-40.0N 178-55.0W.
   D. 22-00.0N 167-58.0W, 22-00.0N 166-36.0W, 
      20-19.0N 166-36.0W, 20-19.0N 167-58.0W.
   A. 28-06.0N 170-12.0W, 27-28.0N 168-11.0W, 
      26-30.0N 168-27.0W, 27-00.0N 170-30.0W.
   B. 22-28.2N 171-01.3W, 22-14.8N 169-48.4W, 
      20-55.0N 170-08.0W, 21-08.4N 171-20.8W.
   C. 20-19.0N 170-20.0W, 20-29.0N 168-01.0W, 
      18-01.0N 168-01.0W, 18-01.0N 170-20.0W.
   20-19.0N 170-20.0W, 20-29.0N 168-01.0W, 
   18-01.0N 168-01.0W, 18-01.0N 170-20.0W.
6. CANCEL THIS MSG 241100Z JUN 21.

It is not clear whether these Navigational Warnings really are related to the Navigational Warnings from NAVAREA XII 271/21. They might be, or might not be. If they are, this might be one of several possible interpretations, pointing to a multiple target intercept where both a missile fired from Kodiak and a missile fired from Kwajalein are to be intercepted:

click map to enlarge

When I presented the evidence for a possible 21 June Missile Defense test on twitter, there were some suggestions that this might be the planned test FTT-21

However, what is known of that planned FTT-21 test suggests the target(s) for that test should be SRBM, i.e. a missile with a range of no more than 1000 km. Which is at odds with what seems to be indicated by the Navigational Warnings, with the missile fired from Kodiak  apparently flying at least 6000 km (assuming areas A to C, blue in the map, define the trajectory of one and the same missile) and the Kwajalein missile at least 1800 km if it is to intercept the Kodiak missile or if it is to be intercepted from area B of the second Navigational Warning (the red area A in the map above). That would be ICBM and IRBM targets, not SRBM targets.

In other words: it is not clear what is going on here, which makes this an interesting issue. 


UPDATE 22 Oct 2021: Not Missile Defense, but Hypersonic glider test 

A very similar set of Navigational Warnings (NAVAREA XII 598/21 and HYDROPAC 2936/21) appeared for October 19-29 2021 (see map below), which I initially too interpreted as a possible Missile Defense test, noting it was 100% similar to the June Navigational Warnings discussed earlier in this blogpost.

However, as Joseph Trevithick reports in The Drive, the test (which happened on October 21) was in reality a test with a long distance hypersonic glider weapon: that failed, reportedly because the booster stack launching the hypersonic glider failed.

So a good thing I used a question mark in the title of this post, and included caveats about the interpretations.

The interesting 'dogleg' in the trajectory is in fact representing a change of course of the glider, and there is no missile launched from Kwajalein: that is the target area of the glider instead.

Here is the map with the Navigational Warnings for October, which is as you can see 100% similar to that for June:

click map to enlarge

It is not clear whether the test for which the June Navigational Warnings were issued happened (and if so whether it was successful or not), or was postponed.

Monday, 14 June 2021

USA 224 has manoeuvered

During the night of June 12-13, I was doing a periodic checkup on the KH-11 Advanced Enhanced CRYSTAL satellites  USA 224 (2011-002A) and USA 314 (2021-032A) that occupy the KH-11 primary East plane. This because I expect USA 224 to manoeuvre to the secondary East plane at some point this summer, now USA 314 has recently been launched into its orbital plane as a replacement (see discussion in my earlier blogpost here).

USA 224 did not appear at the nominal time on June 13 but some 2m 20s late, indicating a manoeuvre.

Observations by David Brierley and me on June 12/13 and 13/14 have established this preliminary post-manoeuvre orbit:

USA 224                                                  255 x 998 km
1 37348U 11002A   21165.00715133 0.00014912  00000-0  12302-3 0    05
2 37348  97.8892 276.6083 0530502 157.6427 204.8870 14.81006602    06

It is clear that this is not the big plane-changing manoeuver expected, but a small regular orbit upkeeping manoeuvre: apogee was raised by some 10 km. 

From the pre- and post-manoeuvre orbit,  I calculate that the manoeuvre took place on Thursday June 10 near 14:14 UT, over the Atlantic, during crossing through the descending node and perigee. 

As usual, the manoeuvre happened while perigee was situated over the equator (when the Mean Anomaly is near 180 degrees, this is always a moment to watch out for manoeuvres). This allows to make adjustments in both orbital altitude and inclination in the same burn, with a minimum expense of fuel.

Observing TacRL-2/Odyssey and it's Pegasus upper stage


I observed the Space Force's new Odyssey/TacRL-2 satellite last light, some 15.5 hours after it's airborne launch on a Pegasus-XL rocket (see previous blogpost). The Pegasus upper stage of the launch was observed as well, close to the payload.

They can both be seen in the video above, shot with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens. Which of the two objects is which is unclear at the moment: the identities have switched between successive orbit updates.

The bright object moving at a tangent at 23:43:23 UT is a Starlink satellite. While observing over the past few nights, the by now ubiquitous and still growing number of Starlink satellites was very apparent. There isn't a minute that one doesn't pass through the field of view. They have a large range in brightness.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

NROL-111 and TacRL-2: two upcoming classified launches [UPDATED]

click map to enlarge


Two classified launches are slated for the second week of June. One is the launch of TacRL-2, on 13 June at 8:11 UT. The other is NROL-111 on June 15 between 10:00 and 15:30 UT [edit: a potential launch time of 11:00 UT has now been announced]. Both are launched by Northrop Grumman, on behalf of respectively the Space Force and the NRO.



TacRL-2 is described as a "Space Domain Awareness" technology demonstration satellite that is part of the "Tactically Responsive Launch Program" (hence "TacRL") of the US Space Force. The satellite was reportedly developed in less than a year time.

It will be an airborne launch, on one of two remaining Northrop Grumman Pegasus-XL rockets carried by a Lockheed L1011 Tristar aircraft. The launch will be over the Pacific, near California.

The Navigational Warnings issued point to launch into a polar Low Earth Orbit with orbital inclination near 96 to 98 degrees. Below are the Navigational Warnings, which I have also mapped in the map above:

090844Z JUN 21
NAVAREA XII 257/21(18,83).
   A. 35-19N 123-44W, 35-13N 122-58W, 
      31-11N 124-05W, 31-16N 124-30W.
   B. 29-34N 125-03W, 29-28N 124-29W, 
      27-32N 124-53W, 27-38N 125-26W.
   C. 20-19N 127-23W, 20-02N 125-41W, 
      15-26N 126-30W, 15-43N 128-11W.
   D. 01-20N 131-46W, 00-35N 127-20W, 
      01-52S 127-44W, 01-06S 132-11W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140955Z JUN 21.
080051Z JUN 21
HYDROPAC 1691/21(83).
DNC 06, DNC 13.
   130840Z JUN AND 140809Z TO 140840Z JUN
   01-20N 131-46W, 00-35N 127-20W,
   01-52S 127-44W, 01-06S 132-11W,
   01-20N 131-46W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 140940Z JUN 21.

In my initial assessment I suggested a 98-degree sun-synchronous orbit as a possibility [EDIT: and it turns out that I was right in that: the payload has been catalogued in a 97.48 degree inclined orbit, catalogue nr 48844]; but I have since revised that assessment based on sensible comments by Bob Christy. His ~96-degree inclined orbital suggestion indeed fits the hazard areas well. Yet, my initial suggestion of a sun-synchronous orbit cannot be totally discounted either [EDIT: see earlier remark: it in fact *is* in a sun-synchronous orbit near ~98 degree inclination, and I am therefore very happy that I included this statement...]. In the map in top of this post, I have plotted the 96-degree inclined option.

UPDATE (13 Jun 11:20 UT): TacRL-2 launched successfully. According to the Space Force, the satellite is named Odyssey.

UPDATE (13 Jun 21:00 UT): Odyssey/TacRL-2 has been catalogued by Space-Track under catalogue nr. 48844, in a 405 x 452 km, 97.48 degree inclined orbit. The orbit is, against expectations, not classified.


Two days after TacRL-2, Northrop Grumman will launch another mission, NROL-111, this time for the NRO. The launch will be on June 15,with a launch window between 10:00 and 15:30 UT. [EDIT: in a tweet, the NRO has now announced 11:00 UT as the launch time)

It concerns the launch of three unspecified small payloads on a Minotaur I rocket. The launch will be from Wallops Pad 0B (Press Kit here). The Navigational Warnings (see below) point to launch into a ~50-degree inclined Low Earth Orbit:

110950Z JUN 21
   151000Z TO 151530Z JUN, ALTERNATE 
   1000Z TO 1530Z DAILY 16 THRU 21 JUN 
   A. 37-57-27N 075-27-32W, 37-38-42N 074-52-00W,
      37-24-46N 075-06-02W, 37-41-36N 075-37-02W.
   B. 36-46-37N 074-55-59W, 37-18-40N 074-06-36W, 
      37-01-44N 073-19-30W, 36-27-47N 072-14-49W, 
      35-59-28N 072-14-38W, 35-30-18N 073-03-54W, 
      35-39-00N 074-02-06W.
   C. 30-10-19N 069-45-00W, 33-31-19N 067-19-52W, 
      30-57-14N 064-49-52W, 29-31-30N 067-11-42W. 
   D. 07-00-00N 048-09-43W, 10-19-01N 044-06-50W, 
      06-14-02N 038-38-13W, 01-44-13N 043-46-37W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 211630Z JUN 21.


I have plotted the Navigational Warnings in the map below (click to enlarge):

click map to enlarge


We can only speculate about the possible functions of the NROL-111 payloads, and the same is true for TacRL-2 ("Space Domain Awareness" broadly suggests the latter is keeping an eye on other satellites). Both missions appear to be experimental. With regard to NROL-111, I just note that orbital inclinations near 50 degrees lately have become very popular with the NRO for some reason.