Monday 29 April 2024

Imaging North Korea's new satellite Malligyong-1

stack of 100 frames


Last week I finally got my first views of Malligyong-1 (2023-179A), the new reconnaissance satellite which North Korea launched on 21 November 2023 (see this earlier blogpost on the launch, and these and these  Space Review articles  regarding the satellites manoeuvering). As it makes passes in the late evening, it so far had remained hidden in the Earth Shadow, but now summer is approaching it is rappidly becoming visible.

My first detection was on 22 April, when it stayed faint due to unfavourable phase angles, and my second detection was yesterday 28 April, when it was brighter (between mag +7.5 and +6 before disappearing in the Earth shadow), during a 30 degree elevation pass in the east at a range of ~900 km. My impression is that it is a bit fainter than the KMS satellites were (part of this is due to the orbital altitude).

Here is video from April 22, shot with the WATEC 902H2 Supreme and a Samyang 1.2/85 mm lens at 25 fps:


Brightness curve:

click diagram to enlarge

The object was steady over the half minute that I could track it (the drop at the end of the curve is because it was entering earth shadow)

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Dark moves at Geosynchronous altitude: Mentor 6 and Luch (Olymp) 2 have repositioned

Mentor 6 on April 16, 2024. Click image to enlarge

A number of SIGINT satellites in geosynchronous orbit have been moving lately. A small roundup:

There is the brand new SIGINT satellite Mentor 10 (USA 353, 2024-067A) that is slowly drifting westwards to its operational position by ~1.35 degrees per day, since its launch and initial insertion at longitude 100 E on April 9. This was discussed in this previous blogpost

But an earlier Mentor (also known as ADVANCED ORION), Mentor 6 (2012-034A), has also been moving recently, from longitude 55.6 E to 51.1 E. This move happened somewhere between the second week of January and the second week of April. The image above shows it on April 16.

The Russians too have recently moved one of their SIGINT satellites again, LUCH (Olymp) 2 (2023-031A). It has now been placed near longitude 4.75 E, close to the commercial satellite ASTRA 4A. The daily distance of LUCH (Olymp) 2 to ASTRA 4A varies between 20 and 70 km. The move was initiated on March 26 and completed by April 2, 2024. The image below shows it on April 16:


Luch (Olymp) 2 near Astra 4A. Click image to enlarge


click diagram to enlarge

click diagram to enlarge

This is the fifth relocation of Luch (Olymp) 2 since launch in May 2023 (see diagram above). Each time it is relocated, it is put close to a commercial telecom satellite (see also the second part of this earlier post). The purpose is eavesdropping on c.q. mapping of  communications and data streams, and potentially also interference.

PAN/NEMESIS-1 (2009-047A), the enigmatic US SIGINT satellite that played the same game since 2009 (see my 2016 article in The Space Review), is still slowly drifting westwards at an average (but somewhat variable) rate of ~0.03 degrees in longitude per day:

Click diagram to enlarge

Monday 15 April 2024

Mentor 10 (USA 353), the NROL-70 payload, likely found near 98 E [UPDATED]

click image to enlarge. Image (c) by @mickeywzx, used with permission

It appears that Mentor 10 (USA 353), the payload of NROL-70, which launched on 9 April 2024 at 16:53 UTC, has been found on orbit by Twitter user @mickeyWZX (Zhuo-Xiao Wang) who is located at Baihuashan Observatory (MPC code P13) in the suburbs of Beijing. 

It is a bright object, reportedly about mag. +7.6, which conforms to the expectation of an ADVANCED ORION, a SIGINT satellite class known as 'Mentor' among independent trackers. These objects are the largest and brightest geosynchronous satellites in the sky with a typical observed brightness near mag +8 (see my 2016 article in The Space Review that discusses one of them as part of a larger story).

When found on April 11, two days after launch, it was located near longitude 97 E.

 A preliminary TLE which the observer posted on Twitter suggests it is drifting westwards in longitude at 0.6 deg/day, indicating it was originally inserted at 98.0 E

[update] a TLE over an arc of several days suggests it is drifting westwards in longitude at ~1.3 degrees/day, indicating it was originally inserted at 100.3 E. [/update]

That is basically in agreement with my pre-launch estimate (100 E), but the orbital inclination of 8 degrees is a bit higher than my estimated 5 degrees. Still, the resemblance to my pre-launch estimate is good.


click to enlarge


In the map below, my pre-launch estimated insertion orbit is depicted (blue) along with the orbital track of the payload after insertion (yellow), from April 9 22:45 UTC to April 19 12:00 UTC (note the daily analemma caused by the 8 degree orbital inclination). The yellow crosses give positions for various future dates if the current drift of 12.3 deg/day westwards continues:

Click map to enlarge

At this moment, the payload is probably controlled from Pine Gap Joint Defense Facility in Australia. If it continues to drift westwards, RAF Menwith Hill in the UK might at some point take over. 

At the current drift rate, if it continues this way, it should become visible at sufficient sky elevation from my location by late May 2024. 

It will be interesting to see where the drift stops. My guess, based on current hightened interest in what is going on in Ukraine, Gaza and the Red Sea area, is somewhere near 30 E. But who knows: it might go as far as 15 W, based on historic positions for this line of satellites.

A preliminary TLE based on observations by @mickeywzx [updated]:

Mentor 10
1 59453U 24067A   24109.01742676 0.00000000  00000-0  00000+0 0    06
2 59453   7.9821 302.0687 0008030 158.5115 201.5250  0.99896432    03


(I thank @mickeywzx for allowing the use of his photography in this post)

Manoeuver moments of the North Korean reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1

click image to enlarge

Earlier this year, I blogged about the detection of a series of small orbit raising manoeuvers performed by the new North Korean military optical reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1 (2023-179A). I also wrote a small piece on it for The Space Review published on 4 March 2024.

I have now completed a follow-up analysis, which appeard in The Space Review last week (8 April 2024). You can read it here.

In that follow-up analysis, I reconstructed the times and locations of each of the five small manoeuvers. And found that they match evening passes over North Korea. Read more details in the Space Review article here.

Saturday 13 April 2024

Russian ICBM test launch (Topol?) from Kapustin Yar seen from the Middle East

click to enlarge

On 12 April 2024 near 16:00 UTC, the Russian Armed Forces test-fired an unarmed ICBM from Kapustin Yar, targetting the test range at Sary Shagan at a distance of some 2000 km. The missile was likely a TOPOL-M.

In the image above, I have modelled the likely trajectory, assuming apogee at 1000 km altitude as in previous tests. Below is Russian MoD footage of the launch:


The missile launch was widely seen as a bright comet-like object in the sky, in Russia as well as in the Middle East, with reports from as far south as a.o. Iran and Iraq. As many there where in anxiety about an expected Iranian retaliation attack on Israel, it created  a bit of a stir.


In the aftermath, there were some people that expressed doubt whether a Russian ICBM test would be visible from the Middle East. So I reconstructed the area of visibility to show that it is in fact visible. 

In the map below, I have drawn isocircles around the estimated point of cut-off of the missile's third stage. That stage cut-off happened after 3 minutes of flight at an altitude of about 570 km (there is some leeway in both figures possible, but in general the figure below will give you a good indication of the area of visibility).

click map to enlarge


The isocircles give you the altitude in the local sky as seen from a region encompassing southern Russia and the Middle East. 

As can be seen, the area of visibility is large, and horizontally extends about 2600 km from the geographic location of stage engine cut-off, to as far as southern Iran. 

Bar the first few tens of kilometers, the trajectory was fully sun-illuminated, and as a result the exhaust clouds of the missile were also sun-illuminated, making them  shine brightly in the sky.

That exhaust clouds from the upper stages of missile launches can be seen over a avery large area isn't something new. Russian ICBM tests from Plesetsk have multiple times resulted in sightings of bright "spirals" in the Arctic sky (e.g. here). Chinese tests have also been observed, e.g. this example that was observed from South Korea in 2019, which I further analysed here. Meanwhile, the post-boost vehicles of ICBM's/SLBM's sometimes also cause visible phenomena in the sky: see my analysis of one such sighting from La Palma in 2013 related to a US Trident SLBM test for example.

Saturday 6 April 2024

A possible French Missile test over the Gulf of Biscaye on April 10-11 [UPDATED]

click map to enlarge

An odd Navigational Warning has appeared, for "space debris" along a 420-km trackline over the Gulf of Biscaye, from a point some 37 km southwest of Concarneau on the southern coast of Bretagne to a point some 20 km west of the French missile test base DGA Essais de Missiles near Biscarosse, southwest France. The Navigational Warning is for April 10 and 11, 2024, from 10:00 to 14:30 UTC (12:00 to 16:30 CEST).

I do not think this Navigational Warning is really about "space debris", but rather believe some sort of missile test is concerned

The southern end of the 420 km trackline being close to the French missile testing base at Biscarosse, while the northern end is in the area that the French Navy uses to test-launch SLBM's, is a giveaway that it rather concerns some kind of missile. Also, a controlled reentry of "space debris" so close to the French coast would be very odd. So I do not believe for a second that the Warning truely is for "space debris"

This is the text of the Navigational Warning:

051439Z APR 24
HYDROLANT 716/24(37).
DNC 08.
   101000Z TO 101430Z, ALTERNATE 111000Z TO 111430Z
   47-36.00N 004-13.00W, 44-20.00N 001-30.00W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 111530Z APR 24.

Because the trackline starts in the area that the French use for SLBM test launches, and because "space debris" would perhaps indicate something with a high apogee, my initial thought (see also the title of the map above) was that it might concern a test of a new SLBM stage (it is definitely not a full M51 SLBM test, the range is much too short for that and those tests fire westwards).

However, the 420 km length of the indicated track line, would also match two medium-range to long-range cruise-missiles of the French armed forces: the ASMP-A, which is airlaunched and meant to deliver a nuclear warhead; and the French-British SCALP-EG, also known as Storm Shadow, which is also air-launched and has a conventional warhead.

If it concerns a ship- or submarine-launched cruise-missile instead, then the MdCN would also be an option, but that missile would have a 2-3 times as large range (edit: but see below).

Calling a cruise-missile "space debris" is a stretch however. So many open questions remain as to the character of the missile in question.


UPDATE 19 Apr 2024:

The test happened on April 18 (the Navigational Warning was re-issued twice, for April 17 and 18). The French Ministry of Defense announced that it concerned a double launch of the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN) Naval cruise missile, one launched from the Frigate Aquitaine, the other from a nuclear  submarine in the Suffren class. The target was on land at DGA Essais de Missiles near Biscarosse.