Evaluation of the Opportunity to Launch Prowler on STS 38

From: Ted Molczan (ssl3molcz@rogers.com)
Date: Sun Feb 20 2011 - 03:44:45 UTC

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    I have completed my evaluation of the opportunity to launch Prowler on STS 38. The abstract and URL
    of the report on my findings follow.
    Space shuttle Atlantis was launched on STS 38, a classified DoD mission, in November 1990. It was
    officially acknowledged to have deployed a single satellite, later identified by researchers as SDS
    2-2, a geosynchronous NRO communications relay. The deployment of a second satellite has since
    leaked out: an optically stealthy, geosynchronous satellite inspector, named Prowler. A
    retrospective analysis confirms that STS 38 had the opportunity to launch Prowler.
    Atlantis could easily have launched the combined mass of both satellites and accommodated them
    within its payload bay. The orbital and observational history of STS 38 reveals the time of both
    payload deployments, and narrows the time of the PKM firings to a roughly half day period.
    Prowler was at risk of detection by the Soviet Union’s space surveillance and SIGINT systems, from
    deployment until arrival at its initial location in GEO. Taking into account likely detection
    avoidance measures narrows the time of its PKM firing to three revolutions.
    Evidence of deception consistent with providing cover for Prowler is found in the shuttle’s
    non-standard payload separation manoeuvres after both satellite deployments, and the apparent timing
    of Prowler’s deployment to avoid detection by the SIGINT facility at Lourdes, Cuba.
    One of my more enjoyable tasks in researching this report was to read through my records of the
    effort to observe STS 38. Here are a few reminiscences.
    Although it happenned just twenty years ago, much was different then. We had already been using
    e-mail for several years, but it was not always reliable. Greg Roberts and I had first been in
    contact the previous year, but had yet to find a way to communicate directly, so we relied on
    intermediaries to relay messages. I received Greg's observation report nearly a week after the
    shuttle landed. Bad weather foiled most of his efforts, but he did manage to see the shuttle in
    bright twilight. Alas, the payloads were long gone by then.
    Mike McCants made several observations, including one of only three confirmed sightings of one of
    the payloads. Tony Beresford contributed to the effort by relaying observations from Australia.
    There are several other contributors who I would like to mention, but first I need to re-establish
    contact with them, and obtain their permission. I can see myself writing a short report on the
    tracking effort sometime, for which I would make an effort to include as many folks as possible.
    The web did not exist yet, but computer bulletin boards - accessed by telephone modem - provided
    somewhat similar functionality. Two popular ones with satellite enthusiasts were T.S. Kelso's
    Celestial BBS, and the Canadian Space Society BBS. Björn Gimle (in Sweden) was one of the more
    distant callers to both. I will close with my search elements post to the latter, minutes after the
    launch, which looks a lot like what I do today on SeeSat-L:
    Message 84                                     DATE/TIME: 11/15/90 19:00
    >From   : TED MOLCZAN
    To     : ALL
    Subject: STS 38 Orbital Elements
    Folder : D, "Satellite Tracking"
    Here are estimated orbital elements for STS 38, which was launched
    tonight at 18:48:16 EST:
    1 90999U 90999  A 90320.04254600  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    00
    2 90999  28.4500 243.4000 0000000   0.0000   0.0000 16.14700000    10
    Predictions made using these elements should be accurate to within
    several minutes in time, over the next few days.
    More precise elements will be posted as they become available.
    Your precise observations are required to improve the elements.  See
    file STS38-01.ZIP, section 5, for details.
    Seesat-l mailing list

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