Tuesday 10 January 2023

The reentry of the second stage of LauncherOne "Start me Up" seen from Lanzarote

(footage by Ramón López,SPMN Lanzarote)

The footage above was filmed last night near 23:19 UTC (Jan 9) by one of the Spanish SPMN's meteor stations, that of Ramón López ("Stargazer Lanzarote") at Playa Blanca, on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands,

It shows the sad ending of Virgin Orbit's failed "Start Me Up" launch (see my previous post). The moving object that can be seen burning up in the atmosphere in the left corner, is in fact the reentry of the NewtonFour upper stage from the LauncherOne rocket. This happened some 10 minutes after launch.

Below is a stack of the video frames (from the original video, kindly made available to me by the SPMN):


click to enlarge

The timing, viewing direction (W-NW), and direction of movement match well with the launch trajectory for the "Start me Up" mission, which passed about 380 km to the west of Lanzarote. 

The low sky elevation also shows that the object is in fact well below orbital altitude, consistent with reentry into the atmosphere. Had it been in the 555 km altitude orbit aimed for, it would have passed much higher in the sky as seen from Lanzarote, and been invisible, as that part of the orbit was not sun-illuminated. The fact that it is visible, alreadsy shows it was burning up by this time, creating the slow fireball visible in the video.

The event is too far south in latitude to be the first stage, which had a designated splash-down area some 400 km out of the coast of Portugal, 1000 km to the north of Lanzarote. 

Hence, it must be the second stage and attached payloads. The event starts around the time the last engine burn should have ended: the launch, at 10.6 km altitude just southwest or Ireland, was at 23:09 UT and the engine burns of both stages in total should have taken 9 minutes.

So, from the available evidence it looks like the second stage of the rocket underperformed. The fact that it reentered 1000 km to the south of the splashdown area for the first stage to me however suggests that it did initially fire.

As a result of the underperformance, the nature of which still has to be established, the rocket did not gain sufficient speed to bring the payloads to orbit: instead, after briefly reaching Space it went down again on a ballistic trajectory, reentering and disintegrating into the atmosphere - along with the payloads - some 500 or so km to the northwest of Lanzarote, roughly in the area indicated by the yellow ellipse in the map below.


click map to enlarge

The bearing of the point where the fireball disappears in the video, crosses the launch trajectory near 30.03 N, 17.28 W, some 360 km West-Noordwest of Lanzarote about halfway between the islands Madeira and La Palma.

The rocket stage and payloads most likely will have completely burned up during the reentry. If any parts survived at all, they are now on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Virgin Orbit itself also points the finger to the second stage as the culprit of the failure to reach orbit.


UPDATE (12 Jan 2023):  according to Virgin Orbit, the cause of the failure was indeed a premature shutdown of the second stage. It happened during the first of two planned burns of this stage, at an altitude of 180 km.

Sunday 8 January 2023

A first launch to orbit from Northwest Europe on January 9 [UPDATED]

click image to enlarge


If there are no launch delays, Virgin Orbit will conduct the first ever launch to orbit from Northwest Europe on January 9.

Dubbed "Start Me Up", the launch will be carried out above the Atlantic just southwest or Ireland. The two-hour launch window opens at 22:16 UTC (23:16 CET) on January 9, 2023.

The launch is airborne, and the launch vehicle is a LauncherOne rocket carried by the Boeing 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' , which will depart from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, UK and then fly to the launch zone southwest of Ireland.

The launch will be into a ~97.6 degree inclined, ~550 km Sun-Synchronous orbit. I estimate this approximate initial orbit:

START ME UP                      for launch on 9 Jan 2023 22:16:00 UT
1 70000U 23999A   23009.92777778  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    00
2 70000 097.6000 244.4122 0003607 140.5188 325.8313 15.04676410    02

[Note added: it appears that the 22:16 UTC time is actually the time the aircraft departs from Spaceport Cornwall. Launch will be about an hour later. The elset above can be adjusted to the actual launch time using my TLEfromProxy software]

The map below shows the launch trajectory, and the two hazard zones published for this launch (Maritime Navigational Warnings HYDROLANT 33/23 and HYDROLANT 37/23). The first stage will splash down some 400 km out of the coast of Portugal. 

click map to enlarge

Unfortunately, a launch at this time of the night in this season means that the initial launch trajectory will not be sun-illuminated, which in turn means that any exhaust clouds produced will not be visible in the sky.

However, for the duration of the engine burns itself, the rocket might be visible on ascend to orbit as a moving dot of light (disappearing as soon as the rocket engines cut off, some 9 minutes after launch). 

Southwest Ireland, being closest to the launch area, has the best viewing opportunity: the rocket will move from the southwest to south-southwest, roughly between azimuth 240 and 200 degrees, and reach a maximum sky elevation of about 35 degrees near azimuth 220 degrees (southwest), based on an estimate of the launch trajectory.

The rocket engine burn might also be visible from the southwest of the UK (particularly Wales and Cornwall) and the Atlantic coast of France (Bretagne), as well as NW Spain and Portugal. I have no idea how bright it may be though, i.e. I have no idea whether it will or will not be visible by the naked eye.

From Cornwall it might reach a maximum elevation of  25-30 degrees in the SW, and from Bretagne in France some 20 degrees due West. From NW Spain, the rocket might rise up to almost 50 degrees maximum elevation due West before burning out.

From the Netherlands, where I live, the launch in theory could be visible, but the rocket will stay below 12 degrees maximum sky elevation.  

Below is a diagram of the approximate trajectory I predict as seen from the SW Dutch coast (Zeeland Province, some 1000+ km from the launch area): times given are in minutes after launch.

click diagram to enlarge


"Start Me Up" will launch seven nine  eight payloads, including several payloads for the UK Ministry of Defense. Virgin Orbit has conducted two four earlier successfull launches so far.

click map to enlarge


The launch happened at 23:09 UTC but unfortunately failed to reach orbit because of an anomaly with the second stage. For more information, including a video of the reentry as observed from Lanzarote in the Canaray Islands, see this follow-up post.

Saturday 7 January 2023

2022 at a Glance

the astrometric positions I obtained in 2022 plotted on a starmap


The plot above shows you 2022 at a glance: all 938 positional measurements for orbit determination I did last year plotted on a sky map

In 2022, I observed on 21 nights (all in the period of April to September 2022), and obtained astrometry on a total of 52 different classified objects (often multiple times) plus 9 unclassified ones. All but one were objects in Low Earth Orbit this time - without intent I neglected GEO and HEO objects in 2022, but I hope to pick up coverage of those again in 2023.

In addition to astrometry (positions for orbit determinations), I also gathered a large number of photometric measurements (data on brightness variations), on Bluewalker 3 (2022-111AL) and on the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft (1972-023E, see the article I wrote on this object here).

Regarding photometry on Bluewalker 3, my data are part of this analysis, and I have become an affiliate member of the new IAU Centre for the Protection of Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellations Interference (CPS) in connection to these activities.

2022 was a weird year for me personally. Halfway through the year I transfered from Leiden Observatory (i.e. the Leiden University dept. of Astronomy) to Delft Technical University, as - against my own expectations - I landed a job as Lecturer in Optical Space Situational Awareness at the section Astrodynamics and Space Missions of the Aerospace Faculty at Delft Technical University (see my June blogpost here). I started in this new position (that should become a permanent position in June 2023 if I satisfy my employers) on June 1. 

Optical SSA is new for the TU Delft: together with my new colleague Steve Gehly I will be creating a new addition to the teaching and research curriculum of the faculty. That prospect is both terrifying and exciting - it is still incredible to me that I now will be teaching the stuff I once started as an 'amateur' on a University! I guess the academic career change from Archaeology to Space is final now.

During the last months of 2022, starting in the new job, including working on a couple of project proposals and finishing the FOTOS 2 project for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, took much of my time and energy.

Among the special interest objects observed in 2022 were, on the unclassified end:

- the Boeing Starliner CST-100 OFT-2

- Bluewalker 3 (2022-111AL)

- China's new experimental 'Space Plane', 2022-093A

- Kosmos 2558 (2022-089A, covertly stalking USA 326

- the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft ( I published a paper on this unique object in The Space Review in May 2022)


Boeing Starliner CST-100 OFT-2 and the ISS, just before docking on May 20, 2022

On the 'classified' end, there were three classified launches where I (usually in unison with Cees Bassa) managed to do the very first optical observations on these objects, a few revolutions after launch:

- NROL-85 (2022-040A, USA 327) in April.

- USA 328-331 (2022-064B-F), 4 objects covertly launched in June.

- NROL-91 (2022-117A, USA 338) in September.


first optical observation of NROL-91 (USA 338), on 25 Sept 2022

I covered two uncontrolled reentries of the massive CZ-5B core stages from the launches of the Wentian and Mengtian modules to the Chinese Space Station (CSS) in July and October with reentry predictions, leading to some media attention as well (it also lead to an episode where I became the target of State sponsored trolling).

I was interviewed by NBC Nightly News in August for an item about Kosmos 2558 stalking USA 326. I also was on Dutch national  television twice, once in March in an RTL-Z news item about Starlink, and once in October in a Nieuwsuur (NPO) item about Elon Musk, Starlink and the war in Ukraine.

I have also been giving several interviews and sollicited opinions in the written press (domestic and international) on various space-related topics, but didn't keep a tally of those.

Apart from spacecraft, I also analysed a number of North Korean and US Ballistic Missile launches the past year.