RE: USA 144: The Mystery Deepens - Flash Timings Needed

From: Ted Molczan (
Date: Wed Aug 07 2002 - 09:04:51 EDT

  • Next message: Sebastian Stabroth: "Re: RE: USA 144: The Mystery Deepens - Flash Timings Needed"

    Sebastian Stabroth wrote:
    > could it be that USA 144 exploded? There are at least nine
    > debris objects (#25746-25749, #25751-25755). One of them 
    > decayed already. I can hardly believe that all of them 
    > are/were mission related.
    I have always been suspicious of the large amount of debris generated by
    this launch, all of which has been officially attributed to the payload.
    It might be useful to review the chronology of this launch (times
    1999 May 22 09:36 UTC lift-off of Titan IVB from VAFB
    1999 May 22 09:45 UTC insertion into 63.4 deg, 210 x 316 km initial
    1999 May 23 08:30 UTC manoeuvre to 310 x 404 km transfer orbit
    1999 May 23 11:30 UTC completed manoeuvre to 389 x 404 km parking orbit
    1999 May 25 02:00 UTC manoeuvred from 389 x 404 km orbit to 2705 x 3129
    km orbit
    A source I trust, who prefers not to be named, told me that all of the
    debris was shed in the insertion orbit, the transfer orbit and the
    parking orbit.
    Hobbyists tracked an object in the parking orbit that was initially
    thought to be the payload. Here is Mike McCants' elset:
    1 25744U 99028A   99159.07478761  .00062000  00000-0  71960-3 0    00
    2 25744  63.4100  42.4565 0010000 349.9893  10.0106 15.61344808    08
    Its standard magnitude (1000 km, 90 deg phase angle) was 6.9, which
    suggests that it was about 1 m across. It was rotating with a period of
    about 17 s.
    Official elements for another piece were issued during is final weeks in
    orbit. This was its orbit about 24 d prior to decay:
    1 25752U 99028H   00026.23500801  .00233793  80000-5  20103-3 0    64
    2 25752  63.3782 246.1198 0047700 353.9531   6.3471 16.10435036 18133
    The 220 x 283 km altitude suggests that it was one of those shed in the
    310 x 404 km transfer orbit.
    It is uncommon for modern spacecraft to shed any debris, but this one
    seems to have left a trail throughout its initial LEO orbits. Judging by
    their rates of decay, they were reasonably dense, so I suspect they were
    operational debris.
    Can anyone think of a practical reason for manoeuvring to the 400 km
    parking orbit, only to spend 1.6 days there and leave behind debris? Why
    not manoeuvre directly from the insertion orbit to the high orbit?
    Turning to the high object, certain facts argue that it is a payload:
    apogee is at 56 deg north latitude, providing the greatest dwell time
    over the traditional areas of interest. This led some of us to speculate
    that this was the "8X" satellite, which supposedly was going to provide
    wide-area, long-dwell time coverage. The ground track nearly repeats
    every 3 days - the U.S. favours 2 to 4 day nearly repeating tracks for
    its LEO imagers.
    On the other hand, the small difference between perigee and apogee does
    not seem to justify use of the 63.4 deg orbit.
    Some have speculated that the payload was bound for a Molniya orbit and
    either became stranded in a transfer orbit or left behind some debris
    there. The problem with that idea is that the orbit of the high object
    does not look much like a  Molniya transfer orbit - its perigee seems
    far higher than necessary. 
    If the high object is the payload, then it must be presenting a solid
    area of at least 500 m^2 to the sun. Some have suggested an antenna, but
    why would it be aimed at the sun? A solar array makes more sense, but
    one that large would generate on the order of 100 kW (based on gallium
    arsenide, at end of life). What needs that much power? A Lacrosse-like
    SAR, perhaps?
    The rotation presents another problem, since most satellites are
    three-axis stabilized. I note that some of the U.S. LEO elints appear to
    rotate rapidly. Could this be a heavy-elint sat? If so, why the large
    area facing the sun?
    Turning back to the debris, this mission reminds me of Misty, aka
    AFP-731, aka 90019B. It was shuttle-deployed into a low 62 deg orbit. A
    week later, Russia reported that it had vanished, leaving behind only
    debris. Speculation was that it had exploded. Seven months later,
    Russell Eberst, Daniel Karcher and Pierre Neirinck found it in a 65 deg,
    800 km orbit. Soon after, in early Nov 1990, it disappeared again. 
    Ten years later, I discovered that Russell Eberst probably observed it
    as an unknown three times during 1996-97. It had manoeuvred to a 66.1
    deg, 736 km orbit, apparently to create a 3 day repeating ground track,
    probably to optimize its revisit rate in support of Operation Desert
    Storm. Here is an accurate orbit derived from Russell's obs:
    1 20516U 90019B   97284.23458324  .00000027  00000-0  70436-5 0    01
    2 20516  66.1631  65.2852 0005248 187.8717 231.2307 14.48751217    03
    It is now generally accepted that Misty was the first U.S. LEO stealth
    satellite. It is believed that hobbyists were able to see it easily
    until early Nov 1990 because its optical stealth mechanism was active
    only when in sight of Russian optical tracking stations. It had been
    assumed that there were no other "detection threats" elsewhere in the
    Since the manoeuvre to the 736 km orbit took place within days of the
    hobbyist's sighting having been made public, it is reasonable to guess
    that the optical stealth mechanism was activated against the hobbyist's
    known locations. That would explain why the otherwise bright object was
    not seen for years, and was faint during Russell's chance sightings in
    Thorough searches by Greg Roberts in 2001 and 2002 failed to turn up the
    object. Most likely because it had exceeded its useful life and been
    Could 99028A be Misty 2, or something similar? Perhaps.
    If so, then I suspect the high object is debris, and that all of the
    debris would have been intended to create confusion. The payload could
    have remained in the insertion orbit until near decay, only to vanish
    while out of range of Russian tracking stations. Or it could have
    manoeuvred to its final orbit shortly after launch.
    One problem with this idea is the notion of using decoys in long-lived
    orbits, such as the high object. If deception and denial is a concern,
    then it is not a good idea to have adversaries hiding from decoys.
    Imagine several decoys in orbits like that of the high object from
    99028A. One would almost always be above the horizon everywhere on
    Earth, leading adversaries to hide as much as possible all of the time,
    leaving little for the real recon sats to see.
    I am not arguing that USA 144 is stealthy; but it is food for thought.
    Certainly, USA 144 remains more mysterious than ever.
    Ted Molczan
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