Friday, 27 August 2021

First positive observations of the LED beacon of the NAPA-2 6U cubesat


On June 30, 2021, a Falcon 9 launched several cubesats in a rideshare launch called Transporter-2. One of the payloads was a 6U cubesat called NAPA-2

This cubesat was built by the Dutch company ISISpace in Delft (the same company that built Brik-II) for the Royal Thai Air Force. It is an IMINT satellite, carrying two small Earth observation camera's. It is in a 97.5 degree inclined sun-synchronous 520 x 540 km orbit with passes around local midnight and noon.

This is the NAPA-2 cubesat after assembly (image courtesy of ISISpace): the 6U cubesat measures about 10 x 20 x 30 cm.

image (c) ISISpace, used with permission.

NAPA-2 has an interesting novelty: it carries a beacon of 12 bright LED's that can be switched on and off by the satellite operators. 

It is an experiment to see if such a bright artificial lightsource on the satellite can aid in optically tracking it.

The past few days saw the commissioning of this feature. ISISpace had asked me whether I could try to image the LED beacon from Leiden. Attempts to image it were made on three nights. 

The first attempt, on August 24 using a 1.4/85 mm lens, was negative.

The second attempt was on August 25. The operators had reorientated the satellite such that the LED's were pointing at the groundstation. This attempt was marginally positive: it was seen but the satellite was extremely faint and barely visible and the trail was lost in the noise background in a frame stack.

A third attempt was made last night, in the early hours of 27 August. This time I used a more powerfull lens, the Samyang 2.0/135 mm. The camera was a WATEC 902H2 Supreme operating at 25 frames/s.

The result was a positive detection: the LED beacon of the satellite, although faint, was unambiguously imaged. The range to the satellite was 598 km during the observation. It was imaged around culmination at 61 degrees altitude in the east.


click to enlarge


Below is the video: the object, coming into the FOV from the right, is very faint, but visible. It disappears near the center of the image because the LED was switched off: the operators operated it is a "3-seconds-on, 1-second-off" mode last night.

Below is a framestack of 60 frames from the video (2.4 seconds of footage). A faint but unmistakable trail can be seen entering the FOV from the right: the LED beacon of NAPA-2! The bright star near the bottom of the image is 13 Persei.

Below is a negative image version of the same stack: and a positive version where I pushed the image such that the trail comes out better.



It should be noted that the cubesat was imaged in a part of it's trejactory where it was in Earth shadow: so all the light solely comes from the 12 LED's!

This is the LED array on the satellite (image courtesy of ISISPace):

image (c) ISISpace, used with permission.

Amazing that 12 LED's are visible from a distance of almost 600 km! 

The LED beacon does not operate continuously: it is only briefly switched on when passing over a tracking station (in this case, my observing location). It reaches an Rmag of about +10.

Below are the astrometric residuals relative to CSpOC elset 21239.30175625 (angles are in degrees, delta T in seconds), showing the good match:

     STA   YYday HH:MM:SS.sss   AZ     EL     XTRK     deltaT   Perr
( 1) 4353  21239 00:52:38.401   78.0   60.9   -0.02     0.02    0.023
( 2) 4353  21239 00:52:38.441   77.9   60.9   -0.02     0.04    0.033
( 3) 4353  21239 00:52:38.600   77.7   60.9   -0.02     0.03    0.030
( 4) 4353  21239 00:52:38.920   77.2   61.0   -0.02     0.03    0.025
( 5) 4353  21239 00:52:38.960   77.2   61.0   -0.02     0.06    0.044
( 6) 4353  21239 00:52:39.241   76.7   61.0   -0.02     0.03    0.031
( 7) 4353  21239 00:52:39.561   76.2   61.0   -0.02     0.03    0.031
( 8) 4353  21239 00:52:39.600   76.2   61.0   -0.02     0.05    0.044
( 9) 4353  21239 00:52:39.761   75.9   61.0   -0.02     0.03    0.025
(10) 4353  21239 00:52:39.801   75.9   61.0   -0.03     0.04    0.041

rms     0.03367

Friday, 6 August 2021

A weird Navigational Warning for a mass deorbit on August 9-10? [updated]

click map to enlarge

A weird Navigational Warning (NAVAREA XII 384/21) for "Space Debris" has appeared defining nine areas, some of them overlapping, in the Pacific for August 9, 16:27 to 17:29 UT and August 10, 17:16 to 18:17 UT.

I have mapped them in the map above. Below is the text of the Navigational Warning:

060929Z AUG 21
   091627Z TO 091729Z AUG, ALTERNATE
   101716Z TO 101817Z AUG
   A. 22-52-40N 137-34-57W, 20-12-47N 134-02-08W,
      04-25-05N 146-28-48W, 06-54-48N 149-55-52W.
   B. 51-11-05N 141-36-54W, 49-40-18N 142-13-53W,
      50-44-15N 170-19-30W, 52-17-11N 170-39-50W.
   C. 12-58-15N 130-00-21W, 10-52-28N 127-06-04W,
      05-17-31S 138-47-34W, 03-13-54S 141-40-25W.
   D. 48-12-47N 135-38-42W, 46-20-17N 136-55-43W,
      50-55-14N 165-28-28W, 52-59-09N 165-19-24W.
   E. 13-53-47N 126-52-33W, 11-46-05N 123-56-09W,
      04-19-41S 135-37-56W, 02-14-45S 138-32-32W.
   F. 49-27-33N 135-51-45W, 47-43-47N 136-53-00W,
      50-56-51N 168-09-57W, 52-48-04N 168-20-28W.
   G. 14-27-06N 127-19-28W, 12-18-52N 124-23-30W,
      03-36-29S 136-03-34W, 01-31-24S 138-57-30W.
   H. 49-46-04N 136-40-41W, 48-05-08N 137-37-30W,
      50-55-01N 168-54-51W, 52-42-19N 169-08-13W.
   I. 31-49-12N 124-20-42W, 30-20-18N 122-34-43W,
      22-47-14N 130-25-52W, 24-10-15N 132-10-44W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 101917Z AUG 21.

The nine areas A to I cluster in basically three regions (which I have colour-coded in the map above).

The directions of the areas point to a series of deorbits from a 51-53 degree inclined Low Earth orbit. As I have indicated in the map in top of this post, two of the three defined regions with warning boxes line up with the ISS groundtrack during the two time windows given, but I think this is coincidence (and the series of boxes south of Alaska do definitely not line up with the ISS during these two time windows. In fact, this points to deorbits from at least two different orbital planes).

Rather, my suspicion is a mass deorbit of Starlink satellites, who move in ~53 degree inclined orbits [but see update below].


After some discussion, Jan Hindrik Knot rightfully questioned whether Starlink satellites, with their ion thruster propulsion, are capable of a controlled deorbit in a designated area at all. That is a good point, which I overlooked initially.

So it appears we have no idea what will be deorbitted on August 9-10.

The combination of the areas in the mid-Pacific and those south or Alaska, to me point to deorbits from at least two different orbital planes (both inclined 51-53 degrees).

Note that, from the position of the areas, the fact that their shapes clearly point to deorbits from Low Earth Orbit, and that the NavWarning mentions time windows on two successive dates, it is clearly not related to this deorbit  (the Spectr-R rocket booster) from Deep Space either.


The plot thickens: the on-line KML version of the Navigational Warning has appeared and mentions: 

"Authority: NASA 300917Z JUL 21"

(the versions sent to subscribers to the service doesn't mention the authorities issuing the warnings).

So it appears to be something NASA-related (HT to @john_moe on Twitter).

One possibility could be that these are emergency landing zones for Starliner (which was to be launched on July 30, the date mentioned in the "Authority:" line: but was scrubbed). Still open questions though: why August 9 and 10? Why where these same zones not published before the July 30 launch date? Questions, questions...


I like the suggestion by Bob Christy that these are warnings for the reentry of the Starliner service module (that is jetissoned from the Starliner capsule before landing of the latter). That makes sense.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Proton-M rb (2021-066B) reentry forecast (updated)

 (this post is updated when I have run new predictions)
click diagram to enlarge

The Proton-M third stage from the July 21 Nauka launch (see previous post) is coming down fast. The current reentry forecast models place the reentry into the atmosphere in the early hours of August 6 UT.

The diagram above shows CSpOC TIP data in red, and my own GMAT model results in black. My GMAT predictions in tabular form:

DATE         UT    +-        LAT    LON    orbit epoch
6-8-2021     9:55  1.8  day                28-7-2021 12:12
6-8-2021    16:51  1.7  day                29-7-2021 06:01
6-8-2021     9:18  1.4  day                30-7-2021 04:16
6-8-2021     8:29  1.2  day                31-7-2021 05:28
6-8-2021     9:47  1.0  day                 1-8-2021 05:09
6-8-2021    18:23   23  hr                  1-8-2021 22:54
6-8-2021    21:00   23  hr                  2-8-2021 03:19
6-8-2021    13:52   17  hr                  3-8-2021 00:31
6-8-2021    11:44   14  hr                  3-8-2021 16:12
6-8-2021     9:29   11  hr    15 S  177 W   4-8-2021 00:05
6-8-2021     7:50    8  hr    19 N  180 W   4-8-2021 15:44
6-8-2021     6:40    6  hr    38 S  108 W   4-8-2021 23:04
6-8-2021     6:26    5  hr     4 N  146 W   5-8-2021 03:27
6-8-2021     2:56  2.9  hr    25 N  112 E   5-8-2021 12:14
6-8-2021     5:07  2.5  hr    22 S  104 W   5-8-2021 16:37
6-8-2021     5:34  1.7  hr    29 S   24 E   5-8-2021 21:00
6-8-2021     4:49  1.6  hr    32 N  148 W   5-8-2021 21:00*

The last orbit was re-issued with an epoch almost similar to the previous orbit. This orbit is indicated by an asterisk and my final forecast.

Within current uncertainty windows, no meaningful prediction can be given about the location of the reentry yet. The values nevertheless listed in the tabe for latitude and longitude are nominal values only for the middle of the quoted uncertainty interval (which spans multiple revolutions around the Earth). Given the current uncertainty intervals, they are basically meaningless. Only an hour or so before the actual reentry, the uncertainty interval becomes less than one revolution.

The map below shows the nominal GMAT and last pre-reentry CSpOC TIP positions, plus the trajectory over the uncertainty window [EDIT: see update with final TIP at end of post!!!!]:
click map to enlarge

The rocket stage has a dry mass of about 4 tons and is about 4 x 4 meter wide. The diagram below shows the evolution of the orbital altitude of the rocket stage so far, based on CSpOC tracking data. Perigee is the lowest point in it's elliptical orbit around earth, apogee the highest point. Altitudes refer to the equatorial radius of the earth.
The last few orbits shows signs of trouble in determining the (quickly evolving) orbit (look at the perigee values for the last four orbits issued). The last available orbit was issued in two versions
click diagram to enlarge
On July 21, a few hours after launch, I filmed the Proton rocket stage during a pass over Leiden, accompanied by three pieces of debris that were never catalogued by CSpOC:
(EDIT: see update below movie!)


The final CSpOC TIP is in: 4:46 +- 1m UT (August 6) near 37.8 N 155.7 W, north of Hawaii (this is probably based on a SBIRS detection of the reentry fireball, given the very accurate +- of 1 minute).

This is very close to my last nominal GMAT estimate (4:49 UT near 32 N 148 W)! 

In all honesty: given the uncertainty intervals, that very good match is down to pure luck....

click map to enlarge