Allen Thomson asked:
Could someone please summarize the status of observations and non-observations of KH 11-8, USA 86 and USA 116? As I understand it, 11-8 has definitely been identified, as has one object which may be USA 86 or 116 based on its orbit.
Is this reasonably correct? Also, how firmly can it be said that there is only one, rather than two, objects in orbits compatible with USA 86 or 116?
My first observation was definitely in the orbit expected for USA 86, on time for an operational companion to KH 11-8, and not in the orbit for the now well-determined MM=3D14.5444 object. I haven't made or seen any more observations matching that one. A parallel case may be Rainer Kracht's discovery of KH 11-8. His first observation does not match the later established orbit.
I made some charts of known MM values for USA 86 and KH 11-8, that appear below. I included the "Novosti Kosmonavtiki" values, and together the charts make a strong case for these two being an operational pair in December, with USA 116 somewhat too low. They also suggest that the operational pair should increase their apogees in March-April.
I can not identify which object moved to the highest orbit, because of the amount of drag, and the possibility of multiple maneuvres in the long period when we have neither observations nor elsets.
Allen Thomson also writes:
If USA 86 has been replaced, that seems to be quite a short lifetime in terms of recent KH-class vehicles. Were there any signs last year that it was behaving abnormally?
I reported multiple flashes last summer, that I haven't seen in any KH 11. To me, it appeared to be tumbling. The object in high orbit also shows similar flashes.
A wild speculation is that it was out of control, and when they tried to lower the perigee to bring it down, it went the other way - like FSW-1 !
A more serious speculation, which I haven't checked yet, is that the object now known moved to the high orbit between my first and my second observation.
Note that in my graphs I use the year of the latest elset as a linear reference for the X-axes. Thus, if the rightmost points appear over 96001-96366, then Dec.30, 1995 is 95999, and 95000 is Apr.05, 1993 ! Compare with the graphs given in the article about Russian Recon Satellites.
Figure 9: KH 11-8 Mean Motion graph
Figure 10: USA 86 Mean Motion graph