Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Observing newly launched USA 328, USA 329, USA 330, USA 331 and a Falcon 9 debris piece

The video footage above which I shot last night shows the classified objects covertly launched with the commercial Globalstar FM15 satellite on June 19 (see my previous post for backgrounds).

The objects are four payloads and a piece of Falcon 9 debris: USA 328 (2022-064B), USA 329 (2022-064C), USA 330 (2022-064D), and USA 331 (2022-064E), and they form a small 'train' with the piece of  Falcon 9 debris (2022-064F) trailing the four at a slightly larger distance. 


click image to enlarge (updated image)


The image above [updated] shows the distances between the objects when they were over the Netherlands on June 22, 00:53 UT.

On June 20/21, 19 hours after launch, both Cees Bassa and me first picked them up, at more or less the same time, when we both did a planescan for the newly launched objects, using my estimated orbit here. They were a few minutes early on predictions, but pretty much on-track.

The payloads are faint, around magnitude +7 to +8: the Falcon 9 debris piece is much brighter, around magnitude +3.5 to +4.


Above is a frame-stack from video footage from that night. I used a Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens (I choose it because of its wide field of view), which with hindsight was not powerfull enough, so the four payloads were barely visible in the video: but the framestack nevertheless gives a good indication of the grouping of the objects (the Falcon 9 debris piece, F,  was still reasonably close that night - it is slowly getting away from the payload group).

The next night, June 21/22, I used a more powerful lens, a Samyang 1.4/85 mm. This time all objects registered well, as can be seen in the video in top of this post. 

Below are two frame-stacks from the second of  two passes imaged with video that night, showing the 'train' of four payloads:

The second payload in the train ("USA 329") shows a slow but notable brightness variation, which can be noted in the video in top of this post, and also in the framestacks: note how it is fainter than the other objects in the first stack, and brighter in the second stack. This could indicate that it is tumbling. The other objects appear steady so far.

As can be seen in the framestacks, the payload 'train' seems divided into two subgroups (or pairs).

The payloads are in 520 x 531 km, 53.0 degree inlined orbits. The piece of Falcon 9 debris is in a 513 x 538 km orbit (these values might still change somewhat when future observations are added: they are based on a one-day arc). 

The orbit is clearly lower than the ~1111 x 1125 km orbit of Globalstar FM15, and the orbital inclination differs by one degree from the latter orbit.

click image to enlarge

Provisional orbital elements for all five objects, based on observations by Cees Bassa and me from three imaged passes on two consecitive nights (June 20/21 and 21/22):


USA 328                                                  520 x 531 km
1 52889U 22064B   22173.02277179 0.00000885  00000-0  48598-4 0    08
2 52889  53.0076 219.0756 0008275 266.6022  93.4023 15.13589607    07

rms 0.013 deg      22 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

USA 329                                                  519 x 531 km
1 52890U 22064C   22173.02278172 0.00000889  00000-0  48818-4 0    03
2 52890  53.0020 219.0447 0008904 282.2135  77.7858 15.13589477    09

rms 0.018 deg      18 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

USA 330                                                  519 x 531 km
1 52891U 22064D   22173.02280361 0.00000956  00000-0  52537-4 0    05
2 52891  52.9994 219.0247 0008947 287.7569  72.2446 15.13572484    07

rms 0.012 deg      22 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

USA 331                                                  520 x 531 km
1 52892U 22064E   22173.02281812 0.00000893  00000-0  49073-4 0    09
2 52892  53.0012 219.0348 0008303 279.7321  80.2731 15.13564015    03

rms 0.010 deg      22 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

FALCON 9 DEB                                             513 x 538 km
1 52893U 22064F   22173.02296837 0.00000882  00000-0  48416-4 0    01
2 52893  52.9956 219.0143 0018707 315.9409  44.0091 15.13486695    05

rms 0.016 deg      27 obs  Jun 20.98 - Jun 22.04 UT

Monday, 20 June 2022

A covert launch on June 19? [UPDATED]


click map to enlarge

On 19 June 2022 at 4:27 UT, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral pad 40 ostensibly carrying a Globalstar block II communications satellite, Globalstar-2 FM15

However, something was odd about this launch, and rumour has it that it covertly launched a second unacknowledged payload for the US Government. [UPDATE: now confirmed. And it are actually 4 payloads!]

This payload, if it exists, was seemingly released into a lower orbit than the Globalstar payload eventually was, possibly (as suggested by Cosmic Penguin on Twitter) at ~535 km (the Globalstar satellite was subsequently released at a much higher  ~1125 km altitude). It likely is in the same 52-degree inclined orbital plane as the Globalstar satellite. 

At ~535 km and with ~52 degree orbital inclination, this means the covert payload is hiding near the forest of Starlink satellites, which orbit at around ~550 km in 53-degree inclined orbits, only slightly higher in orbital altitude and 1 degree higher in orbital inclination.

The oddities with the launch that gave rise to the rumour are listed in this article. Given the mass of a Globalstar satellite and capacity of a Falcon 9, there was no need to have the first stage land on a droneship downrange in the Atlantic Ocean, rather than have it return to land at Cape Canaveral. This suggests it might have carried a heavier payload (e.g., because a second covert payload was on board), which lead to the rumours.

And then, just before the Globalstar deployment, live in-flight footage was shown (screenshot below) that showed something odd: the Globalstar satellite (still attached to the payload adapter on top of the rocket stage) and what looks like a second, empty payload adapter.


click image to enlarge

So this gives credence to the suspicion of a covert deployment of a second satellite in a lower orbit, before deployment of the Globalstar payload into a higher orbit.

The live webcast made no mention of such a second payload: after initial orbit insertion of the Falcon 9 some 10.5 minutes after launch, merely a long 'coasting phase' was suggested (with no live footage during this coasting period), before an orbit raising burn 1 hour 5 minutes after launch (~5:33 UT) , followed by a circulation burn 1 hour 47 minutes after launch (~6:14 UT) and deployment of the Globalstar satellite at 1h 53 minutes after launch (6:20 UT).

At the moment the live feed cut out after reaching orbit, the Falcon 9 seemed to be in a coasting orbit at ~535 km altitude. If there was a covert second payload, it was likely released at this altitude, either just after orbit insertion of the Falcon 9 upper stage slightly over 10 minutes after launch, or just before the orbit raising burn at about an hour after launch. The latter burn, at about ~5:33 UT, was to raise the Falcon 9 plus payload to the orbital altitude of the Globalstar satellite. It was followed some 40 minutes later by a brief orbit circularization burn, at ~6.14 UT.


click map to enlarge


The orbit circularization burn at ~6:14 UT and deorbit burn after 6:20 UT happened over the central and eastern United States and caused a spectacle in the sky, with a 'smoke ring' (probably from the circularization burn) followed by a bright fuzzy cloud (probably the start of the deorbit burn).

This footage of the sky events related to the circularization burn and deorbit burn was made by Dan Bush in Albany, Missouri:

More images can be seen on the site here. Some very nice images which can be seen here were taken by Lick Observatory telescope operator Keith Wandry.

Spectacular views were also seen an hour later over New Zealand, where the Falcon 9 upper stage tank depressurization (fuel vent) in anticipation of the deorbit over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii caused the by now familiar, spectacular bright 'spiral' cloud in the sky typical for Falcon 9 upper stage fuel vents (e.g. see an earlier similar event here, connected to the ill-fated Zuma launch in 2018). Imagery of the spiral cloud can be seen here.

In terms of the potential orbit of the covert payload, if it exists: a lot is uncertain, but I offer this very rough search orbit: [EDIT: updated orbits based on observations here]

UNKNOWN    launched with Globalstar FM15
1 70001U 22999A   22170.18541667  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    02
2 70001 052.0000 230.1696 0001447 047.8547 325.7015 15.10393460    00


UPDATE 1 (20 June 20:45 UT):

The CSpOC catalogue list 4 (four) additional objects for this launch (all with orbital elements witheld):
USA 328, USA 329, USA 330 and USA 331 (catalogue nrs 52889 to 52892).

UPDATE 2 (23 June 10:00 UT):

We are tracking the objects from the launch, see this follow up post. One of the four payloads seems to be tumbling.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Some personal news: Lecturer in optical Space Situational Awareness

I have some personal news to report. 

As of June 1, I have been appointed as Lecturer in optical Space Situational Awareness at Delft Technical University (TU Delft), in the section Astrodynamics and Space Missions of their Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. It is, at my own request, a part-time appointment (0.5 fte).

This is what my new workplace looks like (my new office is in the towering building in the background):

click image to enlarge

Optical SSA will be a new addition to the MSc teaching curriculum at the Aerospace Engineering faculty. So we will have to start from the ground up. I will closely cooperate with a second newly hired person, who will start in August.

Apart from teaching, there is also room for research. Among the topics I personally want to pursue in my new position, are XGEO, and object characterization. I also plan to include some work on NEA's if possible, and it would be nice if I could bring some Space Archaeology into the teaching curriculum as well. We'll see.

I will leave my position as SSA consultant at Leiden Observatory (the astronomy dept. of Leiden University) on July 1, but will continue close cooperations with my Leiden colleagues.