Sunday, 14 August 2022

Will China's second 'Space Plane' land on August 15?

Over the past 10 days I have been following the second test flight of China's "Experimental Test Spacecraft" (2022-093A), a.k.a. it's "Space Plane". See also an earlier post.

The 'Space Plane' has been on orbit now for almost 10 days. That is already clearly longer than the first 2-day test flight from 2020. We have no idea how long they intend to fly it this time. It may be two weeks, maybe months, maybe more. We don't know, and will have to see.

However, if it would land within days from now, then my bet is it will be on August 15 near 7:00 UTC.

On that date on that particular pass, if the spacecraft does meanwhile not manoeuver, the 'Space Plane' groundtrack will cross right over the landing strip near Lop Nor where the previous test flight landed. The maps below show the track leading to it, and how the track actually passes over the landing strip (the triangular structure in Copernicus Sentinel image) near 6:57 UTC on August 15:

click map to enlarge

click map to enlarge


NOTE: this post originally also featured a plot of the RAAN evolution of the spacecraft, with what appeared to be a 'wobble', suggesting small corrective manoeuvers.

I deleted the diagram and accompanying text because it turned out that a weird bug in my spreadsheet (Excel) caused it (!). I am still not sure what happened there. Reloading the dataset and then creating a new diagram had the wobbles disappear. Even though it was the same dataset in the same columns of the spreadsheet. 

Thanks to Cees Bassa for noting something was off with the original plot.

Saturday, 6 August 2022

The flyby of USA 326 by Kosmos 2558 on August 4: a post-analysis

click image to enlarge

In a previous post I discussed the launch of Kosmos 2558 (2022-089A), a Russian military satellite which was launched from Plesetsk on August 1, 2022. 

As I pointed out, it was inserted into the same orbital plane as the American classified military satellite USA 326 (2022-009A, an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite launched in February 2022), at an orbital altitude only a few tens of kilometers below it. 

And that was probably no coincidence: Kosmos 25578 is likely an 'inspector' satellite meant to surreptitiously check out USA 326.


click image to enlarge


The two satellites had a relatively close flyby on August 4. I did a post-encounter analysis based on orbits from before and after the flyby, to assess the time and the distance of the flyby.

I find that the close flyby happened near 14:16:27 UTC (August 4, 2022), give or take a few seconds, at a nominal distance of ~67 km. Most of that distance (about 64 km) is in altitude. 

The flyby happened in daylight near 42.3 N, 25.9 W, over the mid-Atlantic, while both objects were southbound. USA 326 was at an altitude of about 518 km at that time, and Kosdmos 2558 at an altitude of about 453km.

Below is an animation of the flyby, as seen from two viewpoints (first lateral, than oblique):


~67 km is a clear safe distance and therefore no cause for worry (although it worried some generals in the Pentagon perhaps), but nevertheless close enough to make it interesting. I strongly suspect that Kosmos 2558 was imaging USA 326 at the time, in an attempt to gather information on the character of the satellite.

The diagram below gives the distance with time between Kosmos 2558 and USA 326 around the time of the approach.

click diagram to enlarge

It will be interesting to follow the two objects and see whether a new flyby happens at some point. In a previous similar case in early 2020, another Kosmos satellite, Kosmos 2542, was sent to check out the US military satellite USA 245, and released a second satellite, kosmos 2543, that chased the US satellite for a while.


Added comment:

Fred Jansen made a pertinent remark: from launch to operational in a mere 3 days would be awfully fast.
Another issue, brought up by Allan Thomson, is that the Sun-Kosmos 2558-USA 326 angle was quite low during this encounter, which is  not ideal.

However, as the two objecst share the same orbital plane, these encounters repeat at intervals: so even if it was not ready and fully operational yet during this approach, there will be other opportunities in the future. It will be interesting to see whether Kosmos 2558 will raise its orbit at some point, or will do other manoeuvres to keep the precession of its RAAN in line with that of USA 326.

(Note: the orbital elements for USA 326 used in this analysis are based on optical tracking data by an international group of  Independent Space Observers, including myself, Cees Bassa and Russel Eberst)

Observing China's Re-usable Test Vehicle (or "space plane")


frame stack. Click to enlarge

On August 4 2022 near 16:00 UTC, China launched a CZ-2F from Jiuquan carrying a "re-usable experimental spacecraft". It is the second orbital test flight of the Chinese 'space plane', China's answer to the X-37B, following an earlier orbital flight in September 2020 (see my 2020 blog post) . In 2020, the craft returned and landed on a landing strip near Lop Nur after two days on orbit.

Above is a frame stack of 76 frames showing the spacecraft and the CZ-2F upper stage from the launch in the evening of 5 August 2022 near 20:10 UTC. The frames are from the video below which I shot from Leiden, the Netherlands, with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme + Samyang 1.4/35 mm lens, in deep twilight (sun at only -6 degrees elevation):



The re-usable experimental spacecraft was launched into a 346 x 593 km, 50-degree inclined orbit. The orbital inclination is similar to the September 2020 test launch: the orbital altitude is however different this time. The 2020 test flight was in a 331 x 347 km orbit: the current flight is in a more eccentric orbit with higher apogee altitude (at almost 600 km, or 250 km higher than in 2020).

click image to enlarge

Eight objects (2022-093A to H) have been catalogued from this launch: the reusable test vehicle itself, the CZ-2F upper stage, four pieces of CZ-2F debris, and two additional objects of unknown character, objects G and H. The latter might be secondary payloads. They could perhaps be test targets to retrieve, or 'inspector' satellites to check the outside of the spacecraft. We'll see what happens. They are apparently small as my camera yesterday only registered the test vehicle and the CZ-2F upper stage.

On the previous flight, multiple objects were catalogued as well: apart from the test vehicle itself and the CZ-2F upper stage, there were - just like now- four pieces of CZ-2F debris catalogued. In addition an object was ejected from the test vehicle some 3.5 hours before the latter landed (speculation at the time was that it might have been an inspector satellite to inspect the outside condition of the spaceplane before the landing). That object reentered in December last year.

For the current test flight, the currently catalogued 8 objects, 2022-093A to 2022-093H, have varying apogee altitudes. The H-object has a notably more circular orbit than the other objects:

click diagram to enlarge

It will be interesting to see how long the orbiter will stay on orbit this time, and whether it will manoeuvre (it did not during the previous test flight). When it lands, we expect that to be at the same landing site as in 2020, a remote landing strip near Lop Nor (see the end of this 2020 post).


[added 7 Aug 2022]

Below is footage of another pass, taken in the evening of 6 August 2022. First object to come into view is the CZ-2F upper stage from the launch; then follows the 'space plane' (plus an airliner).

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

A stalker and its prey (Kosmos 2558 and USA 326)


In my previous post I discussed the newly launched Russian military satellite Kosmos 2558 (2022-089A), that was launched on August 1 into the orbital plane of the US military IMINT satellite USA 326 (2022-009A). There are indications that it is an 'inspector' satellite that is going to take a detailed look at USA 326.

Last night I observed them both, passing about half an hour after each other. Over the enxt 24 hrs Kosmos 2558 will approach USA 326, to a distance of ~75 km on August 4 ~14:47 UTC, if they do not manouvre in the mean time.

Above are framestacks from the captures (in the image with USA 326, a flaring Starlink, Starlink-1349, is also visible, in the lower left corner).

Below is the video footage. It was taken with a WATEC 902H2 Supreme with a Pentax 1.2/50 mm lens at 25 fps.

It will be interesting to follow this Cold war cat-and-mouse game above our heads over the coming days and weeks....



Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Kosmos 2558, a Russian inspector satellite targetting the US IMINT satellite USA 326?


click image to enlarge

On August 1, 2022, at 20:25 UTC, Russia launched a Soyuz 2.1v carrying a military satellite from Plesetsk into a Polar orbit. It has since been catalogued under nr 53323 (COSPAR ID is 2022-089A). It will probably receive the designation Kosmos 2558

Directly after launch it was in a 435 x 452 km, 97.25 degree inclined orbit. The Volga upper stage was catalogued in a 284 x 425 km orbit.

Before the launch, there was a rumour that this was another 'inspector' satellite - a snooping satellite meant to covertly inspect another satellite. After some speculation about the potential target arose, I pointed out that the middle of the launch window as indicated by NOTAM's for the launch, 20:30 UTC, was close to the moment that the orbital plane of the classified US electro-optical IMINT satellite USA 326 (2022-009A) passed over Plesetsk, at 20:25 UTC

And sure enough, it did indeed launch at 20:25 UTC, into the orbital plane of USA 326. And as it turned out, into an orbital altitude that is close as well.

The apparent target, USA 326, was launched in February and is widely believed to be a new generation electro-optical IMINT satellite. It moves in a 97.4 degree inclined, 489 x 518 km sun-synchronous polar orbit. 

The RAAN of the newly launched Kosmos 2558 matches the RAAN of USA 326 closely, with a difference of only 0.04 degree (changing by about 0.01 degree/day). The close correspondance of the two orbital planes can be seen in the diagram above. The orbital altitude of Kosmos 2558 is about 60 km lower than that of USA 326, but that might change if any post-launch manoeuvres are done the coming days and weeks.

With the current orbit, Kosmos 2558 will make a relatively close approach to USA 236 at August 4 near 14:47 UTC. The approach distance is ~75 km, almost all of that (73 km) is in altitude.

 [EDIT: a post-encounter analysis on 6 Aug 2022 based on orbits closer to the approach moment gives 4 August ~14:16:27 UTC for the approach, and a nominal distance of 67 km, most of this in altitude]

In early 2020, Russia did something similar with Kosmos 2542/2543, directing it towards the KH-11 electro-optical reconnaissance satellite USA 245.

It will be interesting to follow both satellites the coming weeks, to see what happens.