Re: USA 40 debris storm

Philip Chien (
Mon, 5 Feb 1996 18:10:46 -0400

Tristan Cools said:

>USA 40 has always been in mystery since its launch back in 1989.  Shortly
>after launch in August 1989 the main payload of STS 28 Columbia began
>tumbling into space which was followed and confirmed by several observers
>over different countries.  Together with another, smaller satellite(USA 41)
>it has never been understood what those satellites were but it is believed
>that the USA 40 satellite was a prototype of a KH12 imaging satellite and
>USA 41 was probably a small Elint satellite.
>Because of the secretness of both payloads it is almost impossible to know
>wether the fragmentation came from USA 40, 41 or the rocket body from USA 40.

BALONEY!  The mystery was spread by John "I don't know what I'm talking
about" Pike speculating on the payload, and "Aviation Week" which should
have known better.  Almost all of the USA 40 mysteries were suspected by
mid-1991 by Ted Molczan, and the nails were put in to the coffin by Sean
Sullivan and myself in December 1992.

Short answer -

USA 40 was virturally identical to the USA 89 (a/k/a DOD-1) satellite
launched during the STS-53 shuttle mission.

USA 41 was a GLOMR-class microsat ejected from a GAS can.

Long answer -

After its deployment from the shuttle USA 40 was observed from the ground
to be flashing.  One of the early assumptions for USA 40 was that it was
out of control.  But it was based on a shakey assumption to begin with.

Most working low earth orbit satellites are three-axis stabilized,
magnetically stabilized or gravity graident stabilized.  A couple of
smaller satellites are 'tumblers' (e.g. purposely not stabilized).  The
satellites which are spin stabilized in LEO are rather rare.  At higher
altitudes many satellites, in particular the ones made by Hughes Aircraft,
are spin stabilized spacecraft, using gyroscopic principles for
stabilization.  (the only non-spinners built by Hughes are the lunar
Surveyor spacecraft and the HS-601 model).  Secondary benefits of a spinner
are easier thermal control since all of the outer surfaces are evenly
heated and better stability during rocket burns.  Many satellites which are
three-axis stabilized as operational spacecraft are spinners during their
transfer orbits for these reasons.

Ted Molczan noticed that the spin rate was gradually decreasing and he
verified that spin stabilizied satellites have a range of acceptable spin
rates.  He concluded that if it was an active satellite then eventually
after its spin rate decreased beyond a certain figure the satellite
controllers would have to increase the spin rate back up to an acceptable
level.  On the other hand, if the satellite really was out of control then
the spin rate would continue to decrease gradually to almost nothing.

But the spin rate never did decrease or increase.  The satellite suddenly
'disappeared' from viewers around the world.  According to John Pike, in a
December 1992 interview published in the "Orlando Sentinel" all of us lost
the satellite at the same time.  (I really should type in that story - it's
a quite good one about the DOD-1 search)

A mild surprise came in the NORAD catalog - a D object (A was Columbia, B
was the primary payload, C was the secondary USA 41 payload) appeared about
the same time USA 40 disappeared.  Could this have been the first object
from a fragmentation event?  Ted Molczan verified that it *was* a rocket
body.  In any case no additional objects showed up in the catalog until the
recent debris storm from USA 40.

In November 1992 I made my first trip to the Johnson Space Center,
coinciding with the STS-53 preflight press conferences.  Lead flight
director Rob Kelso said that he thought that he might have to say "Hi I'm
Rob Kelso, the lead flight director of STS-53.  Do you have any questions?"
It turned out that some information was declassfied - enough to give a
mission overview, without any specifics on the payload.

Oh yeah, during that trip to Houston I had a casual conversation with one
of the astronauts who flew on the STS-28 mission.  We were talking about
practically everything under the sun, and he casually remarked that in all
of the speculation in the press about the STS-28 DoD payload he did not see
a single story which correctly identified the payload.

Anyway, within a couple of weeks Sean Sullivan and I were able to figure
out - with virturally certainty - what the DoD-1 payload actually was, an
Molniya orbit SDS communications satellite.

<assorted neat stuff about STS-53 and the discovery of DOD-1 left out to
save space.  If anybody's interested though ....>

During one of our casual conversations Sean commented that the only DoD
shuttle payload which we weren't certain of anymore was USA 40.  You know,
in retrospect that remark was pretty funny.  I checked the AW&ST stories
about the STS-28 mission and noticed that the published weight differed
from the STS-53 weight by less than 600 lbs. (out of 23,000!)  And then we
verified that the planned STS-53 altitude was identical to the STS-28

This was actually one of our best unexpected side benefits from the DoD-1
analysis.  We suddenly noticed that the two missions were virturally
identical - same altitude, almost identical payload mass, etc.

Sean and I made it quite clear that there were three provable indications
post-launch of DoD-1 which would prove that we were correct and the silly
speculation by media sound-byte artists were wrong.  They were:

a) the satellite would appear as a flashing object, indicating that it was
spin stabilized.  Lacrosse (which is what John Pike claimed the DoD-1
payload was) appears as a steady red object.

b) the payload would appear virturally identical to the STS-28 payload
launched in 1989.

c) after a period the satellite would 'disappear' because its perigee kick
motor would fire to put it into a Molniya transfer orbit.  Some time after
that an additional tracked object from that mission would show up in the
NORAD catalog.  Lacrosse, of course has no upper stage and would not go
into a different orbit.  Eight years after its launch the original Lacrosse
satellite is still enthusiastically tracked by amateurs around the world.

Do I have to even mention that within hours after the payload was deployed
the first two conditions were met, and the last was met a couple of months

The day the shuttle was scheduled to land at KSC I got up early to look for
both visible passes - DoD-1 and Discovery.  It was rather incredible to see
the satellite which I helped ferret out, followed a minute later by the
shuttle which carried five people I know.  Sean took a time exposure of the
DoD-1's pass through the Big Dipper, and brought it to the press site.

I've shown Sean's photo to some of the astronauts who flew on the STS-53
mission and they've been amused/impressed (I'm not sure which).  Since
they're still active they cannot confirm or deny what's in Sean's photo.  I
did try to convince the Air Force pulic affairs officer at the Cape that
I'd trade him a copy of my photo for a copy of a photo on the ground before
the launch - but he didn't take me up on my offer.  *sigh*

Allen Thompson had translated a Russian military document which called the
STS-28 payload the SDS 2-1 satellite, which confirmed what we believed.
The SDS satellites are highly classified Molniya orbit communications
satellites which have long viewing periods over the arctic regions not
covered by conventional geostationary satellites.

Postscript.  Some time later I wrote an article about military satellites
for "Via Satellite" including the correct identifications of the USA 40 and
USA 89 payloads.  I sent the STS-28 astronaut I talked with a copy of that
article.  Fortunately he's still on talking terms with me, and to protect
the innocent I'm not going to mention that his initials are ---- nah!

In any case I have *NO* doubts about the identity of the USA 40 primary payload.

I've verified that the secondary USA 41 was a GLOMR / NUSAT class
sphererical (actually soccer ball-shaped (football for those of you outside
the US and Canada)) microsat ejected from a getaway special canister.  It's
still listed in the NORAD catalog, but there is no doubt that it had to
have reeentered by now given the relatively low shuttle altitude, and lack
of propulsion capabilities for GAS ejected satellites.  The GAS folks have
verified that their hardware was used, but the payload was processed by the
Air Force.  The best bet is that it was a carbon copy of the first GLOMR
which was launched on the STS 61-A shuttle mission in October 1985.  From
published reports the GLOMR program was rather successful, and evolved in
to a classified program for light satellites.

now as to what this particular recent debris storm may be from ....

These are my guesses - and this is speculation on my part but based on the
known facts.

A solid upper stage was probably used for USA 40 and USA 89.  It would have
been a third stage Minuteman or Star 63F class motor.  Once ejected the
empty cases are fairly stable, and I don't know of any case of solid motor
fragmentations several years after launch which could have cause that much
debris.  Still, this is a possible scenario.

The GLOMR spacecraft is quite clearly bits and pieces of melted metal in
the upper atmosphere, and could not possibly be the cause of the debris

which leaves us with ...

the spacecraft.

Philip Chien, Earth News - space writer and consultant  PCHIEN@IDS.NET
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