Friday, 18 May 2012

PAN is on the move, and detection of an unknown object in near-GEO

Last Wednesday evening (16 May) saw very clear skies. Combined with the absence of moonlight, an ideal situation to target geostationary objects, which are low in the sky for me at 52 N. As they are low  and I am in an urban environment, I need a very transparent sky.

Normally I use the 2.8/180mm Zeiss Sonnar, but this time I went for the SamYang 1.4/85mm. The limiting magnitude of this fine lens is only slightly less than that of the 180mm, but the FOV is twice as large (10 x 14 degrees). It is a geostationary magnet: in one single image I counted 20 geostationary or near-geostationary objects! In total, the session (a sweep of some 25 degrees of equatorial sky in the S-SE, at elevations of 15 to 25 degrees) recorded 38 objects: 7 classifieds, 30 unclassifieds and one unknown.

An UNKNOWN object on May 16

As part of the session, an object in near-Geostationary space was serendipitously observed that cannot be matched to any known object (for recorded positions, see here). It was slowly moving near the commercial geosats Eutelsat 36A and Eutelsat 36B (00-028A and 09-065A) and was captured on several images, small parts of four of which are shown below (note the movement relative to the stable Eutelsats):

click image to enlarge

As Heavensat with the latest orbital catalogues loaded showed nothing in this position I initially logged it as a 'UNID'. Then a check with Ted's IDSat software resulted in a very superficial match with the DSP F20 cover (00-024E), but a clearly non-linear delta T suggested this could be a spurious match (see the questionmark and note under my data report here).  Next Mike McCants contacted me, it was indeed a spurious match in his opinion as his analysis of my data suggested an approximate orbit that does not match the DSP F20 cover at all. So for now, the object is designated as UNKNOWN 120516.

Objects like this do not spontaneously materialize, and there is no recent launch that can account for this object. It is therefore likely an old object being relocated. According to Mike, one possible (but by far not certain) option is that it is the classified object Mercury 1 (94-054A, or USA 105), which has not been observed for some time, being retired and relocated to a graveyard orbit.

Unfortunately, both Greg Roberts in South Africa and me here in the Netherlands were clouded out last night and today, so follow-up using Mike's approximate search orbits is troublesome for the moment.

PAN being relocated again

Another classified geostationary object on the move again is the enigmatic PAN (09-047A). This object has an unusual history of frequent relocations, moving to and fro in longitude each few months. It was at 44.9 E in the spring of 2011, then relocated to 39.1 E in the summer of 2011 and next moved to 52.5 E somewhere between late October 2011 (I still observed it at 39.1E on 23 October 2011) and January 2012, when Greg Roberts noted it missing after which Ian Roberts recovered it at 52.5 E early February.

And now its is moving again: Greg Roberts was the first to note this on May 10 and recovered it on May 14 and May 16 while it was and is moving towards 39.1 E (a position it has previously occupied). I imaged it near 39.1 E too on Wednesday evening May 16. Below is a part of one of the images, showing PAN and several commercial geostationary objects, as well as two old rocket boosters in GTO:

click image to enlarge

 Other classified (near-)  geostationary objects observed this evening were the SIGINT Vortex 6 (89-035A, also in the process of being relocated), the SIGINT Mentor 4 (09-001A), it's rocket (09-001B), the Milstar 5 communication satellite (02-001A), the DSCS 3-13 R2 rocket (03-008C) and the DSP early-warning satellite DSP F23 (07-054A).

Apart from these geostationary objects, I observed the LEO object USA 186 (05-042A, a KH-12 Keyhole) as well that evening, in its new orbit after it manoeuvered earlier this year.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Voice reception (radio) of Soyuz TMA-04M bringing crew 31 to the ISS

On May 15 the Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft was launched from Baikonur, bringing a fresh crew (crew 31) of Kosmonauts to the International Space Station.

At 09:04 UTC (11:04 am local time) this morning (May 16), it passed over Leiden. Using my old scanner radio (Realistic Pro-2042) and a homebrew dipole antenna, I listened in on 121.75 MHz as the Soyuz crew was talking (in Russian) to groundcontrol in Russia. Above is a 54 second record with the best part of the reception, starting at 09:03:40 UTC.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

IGS 1B on 12 and 13 May

After a month of generally bad weather conditions, two clear evenings allowed to track IGS 1B (2003-009B) again, the malfunctioned Japanese spy satellite that will have an uncontrolled reentry this summer.

Below video shows footage from both evenings: it opens with May 12 footage of IGS 1B crossing through Bootes and Corona Borealis (25 mm lens), and next shows footage of May 13 showing it moving through Leo and Uma (9 mm wide angle lens)

The photograph below was shot in the evening of May 13 using the EF 2.0/35mm lens, showing IGS in Leo over the roof of my house:

click image to enlarge

Other objects tracked include the IGS 5 r/b (09-066B). I also obtained remote telescopic imagery of Prowler (90-097E) using the 37-cm Rigel telescope in Sonoita, Arizona.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

An update on IGS 1B - a spy satellite about to reenter this summer

(updated reentry prediction at the end of this post)

Last year I wrote extensively about the malfunctioned Japanese spy satellite IGS 1B (2003-009B) which is about to reenter, uncontrolled, into the atmosphere soon. The above footage of the object was shot by me last April 13 and 14 and shows two passes over Leiden.

This radar satellite, launched to keep an eye on North-Korea in 2003, malfunctioned in March 2007, halfway though its mission. Since then, it has been steadily coming down (see diagrams below) in a way that clearly shows that the satellite operators do no longer have control over it.

Last year, I pointed to the fact that the 1.2 tons  satellite will reenter in 2012 (so this year), and likely still has some remnant fuel onboard. A subsequent assessment by high-end amateur satellite tracker Ted Molczan showed that this amount of fuel is limited - probably about 14 to 50 kg, an order of a magnitude less than the infamous case of USA 193 in 2008. This assessment is important, as an uncontrolled reentry of a satellite with fuel onboard is a potential hazard (reason why I wrote about it last year) and authorities were (and are) very quiet about it. Ted's assessment, the only public one to date, helped to put the potential risks involved into proper context.

In the autumn of 2011 we temporarily lost track of IGS 1B because it entered winter invisibility for the Northern hemisphere (where most of our observers are located). Early April this year, it emerged from this winter blackout again. I did a failed attempt to recover it on the evening of April 2, and then Russell Eberst successfully recovered it a day later on the evening of April 3. Since then, I observed it on April 13, 14 and 22 (see video footage above of the April 13 and 14 passes) and other amateurs have observed it as well.

Below is a 35-second integration of video frames from the April 13 video (upper right are tail stars of the Big Dipper):

click image to enlarge

Orbital evolution over the winter blackout

When IGS 1B was lost in the winter blackout in the autumn of 2011, it was in a 453 x 455 km orbit. Since then, it has come down considerably: as of 2012 May 1 it is in a 366 x 368 km orbit, almost 100 km lower (and now below the orbital altitude of the ISS). It is coming down at an increasingly fast speed, as the diagrams below show (based on orbital calculations by Mike McCants, derived from amateur observations which include my observations):

click diagrams to enlarge

Current Decay Prediction

Using Alan Pickup's SatEvo software with the current orbit and solar activity, I expect the reentry of IGS 1B to occur somewhere during a window that spans from June until August. As the orbit is evolving fast, it is pertinent that we keep close track of the object in order not to lose it (a few days old elements already results in several minutes uncertainty in pass time).