Re: Tentative ID for Eric Vondr

Robert Sheaffer (
Tue, 24 Mar 1998 15:27:38 -0800

At 12:04 PM 3/24/98 -0800, ROB MATSON wrote:
>The only track that comes close that I've been able to find is Molniya 3-27
>(85117A, #16393).  It was on a parallel track during that time period, moving
>at the proper speed, about 1 degree west of the above track.  --Rob

Interesting that a colleague reported a sighting to me from New Mexico
in December of a bright flashing object that matches up only with a
Molniya object:

>                  [begin quote from email exchange]

> On New Year's Eve, I was outside enjoying the cold, clear midnight sky
> I noticed a flash near the zenith.  Several seconds later, I saw
> I watched it over a period of 5 minutes or so.  The flashes
(very bright,
> fast, and small) were repetitive enough for me to estimate
about a
> 12-second interval.  I realized that most space junk was in
earth's shadow
> at midnight, and so was truly puzzled as to what it could
be.  It was way
> too far away to be a conventional plane.
> I mentioned
this to colleague John G, and he suggested I check out
> your column in the
latest S/I.
> SUPERBIRD A!  I bet I saw it!

Not so fast. First,
geosyncs are never seen at the zenith (unless one is
near the equator).
Look at where all the satellite dishes in your vicinity
point. None of them
go straight up. Second, I happen to know that Superbird 
A is not presently
visible from North America, and won't be until about

However, it
could be a dead or dying object in a Molniya-type orbit. The
Russkies are
fond of putting lots of stuff into very highly elliptical
orbits of 12-hour
periods so that they spend most of their time up at
very high altitudes
over the high latitudes like Siberia. Normally they're
pretty faint, but
then a well-behaved satellite would never flash
repeatedly like that - the
flash indicates a tumble out of control. This
may be the Molniya equivalent
of Superbird A.

                   [my next letter]

I ran SKYMAP with the more-or-less full dataset of satellite elements
(alldat.tle), and yep, there were a bunch of them up above you in
high orbits (there always are). I set it up for midnight my time,
which is 1AM your time (08:00 UT Dec. 31), and plugged in your
lat/long. (And actually, small errors in position are the LEAST of
our worry, especially on distant objects like this. Compute the
parallax yourself!)

While there were several possibilities, in my guesstimation the best 
candidate is:

   [begin quote]

18 January 1979 Molniya 3-11 Nation: USSR. Launch Site: Plesetsk . Launch
     Molniya M . LV Configuration: Molniya-M (Block-ML). Program: Molniya.
     Molniya-3 11. Mass: 2,060 kg. Class: Domestic Comsat. Spacecraft:
Molniya. Perigee:
370 km. Apogee: 39,973 km. Inclination: 63.0 deg. Period: 717.6 min.
COSPAR: 1979-004A. 

Continued operation of the long-range telephone and telegraph
radio-communication system
within the Soviet Union and transmission of USSR central television
programmes to
stations in the Orbita and participating international networks
(international coope
ration scheme).

   [end quote]

Since this object is now 19 years old, it is almost certainly non-operational.
(The lifetime of an American Comsat is about 10 years, I assume that the
ones last no longer). Any object that might be tumbling to produce the
that  you reported cannot possibly be operational.

While a Molniya is surlely a large object, I am not aware of any naked-eye
sightings of reflections from them. The range was 16,494 km. While this is
quite distant, it is much less distant than a geosynchronous sat (about
40,000 km), and we know that large objects in geosynchronous orbit can
produce naked-eye reflections. When the geometry is favorable, Superbird A
is typically magnitude 3-4. If the size of the two objects is comparable
(Molniya might be smaller), the distance alone allows an advantage in
magnitude for the Molniya of a factor of about 6, or about 2 magnitudes,
which makes a Magnitude 1 reflection theoretically possible.

Another possibility might be something designated 96060A, but I don't
know what that is. Its range was 12,340 km. Also, 94081 was at a range
of 16,327 km.

                 [end excerpt]

So, now that more people are looking for, and reporting, flashes from
satellites, are they starting to see a few Molniya naked-eye flashers?

        Robert Sheaffer - - Skeptical to the Max!

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