Could the Titan IV launch involve a Molniya payload? - Was NOSS 2-3 B (and A) timings ?

Ted Molczan (molczan@fox.nstn.ca)
Fri, 17 May 1996 11:59:04 -0400

Bjoern Gimle wrote:

>This does not explain the timings of May 16. Did the rocket
>maneuvre when releasing something recently ? Is the A object
>going into a Molniya orbit some time ? Haven't there been
>reports on previous occasions about these objects flashing
>in LEO ? I am no good at keeping/remembering historical data.

No one knows whether or not the A object
goes to Molniya, but some of us speculated
on this, and it is interesting. I believe
it is possible, but let us consider what we 
do know.

First, consider the following tables, extracted 
from Jonathan McDowell's compilation of U.S. 
reports of classified debris orbits to the U.N. 
In the case of the NOSS 2-1 launch, there are 
two pieces in moderately eccentric orbits, with 
apogee far higher than the NOSS triad's. Could 
this debris be in the transfer orbit to a 3000 km 
circular orbit? Or could it have gone to Molniya, 
with perigee at either 1228 km or 2960 km?

NOSS 2-1

1990-50B  Elements not available
1990-50F  129.2    1228 x   2960 x  63.5
1990-50G  125.4    1224 x   2601 x  63.4
1990-50H   90.0     268 x    284 x  61.0

NOSS 2-2

1991-76B  Elements not available
1991-76F   93.3     275 x    614 x  61.0
1991-76G  107.4    1084 x   1128 x  63.4
1991-76H  107.4    1090 x   1123 x  63.4
The 61 deg object was the Titan 2nd stage, 
which Russell Eberst tracked almost to decay, 
so we know that is a an accurate orbit.

In the case of NOSS 2-2 there are two pieces
at the approximate altitude of the NOSS triad.
Oddly, Russell Eberst and others tracked two
faint objects, but they did not have those orbital
dimensions:

1040 x 1052 x 63.4
 795 x 1323 x 63.4

The first object is significantly lower than either
of 1991-76G or H. The second object's orbit is very
different from G and H's. Before anyone tries to
read too much into those dimensions, I should add that
the object appeared to have an ndot/2 of about 0.00007, 
which is rather high for drag at a perigee of nearly 
800 km. I suspect that this object was experiencing 
strong SRP effects, which commonly changes both the 
apogee and perigee height simultaneously. Note that the
mean altitude of both objects is nearly identical - I 
suspect that the eccentric orbit started out at more 
nearly the dimensions of the circular orbit, before SRP 
took over. This is only a guess, which needs to be 
analyzed thoroughly.

The 61 deg NOSS 2-2 object appears to be the Titan 2nd
stage; however, observers found it in a 63.4 deg orbit,
and its apogee would have been closer to 670 km at the
time of launch, given typical decay rates at the time.
Perhaps 61 deg was only the initial parking orbit, changed
son after launch to the orbit that was observed.

If the NOSS 2-2 listing can be believed, then both NOSS
launches went into 61 deg parking orbits. But the present
launch seems to fit 63.4 deg fairly well. But it was not
seen prior to 1.5 days post launch, plenty of time to have
changed inclination.

The 61 deg orbit could also be an indication of the orbit
of the A object.

Another interesting fact is that the B debris object from
both launches has been classified. That and the fact that
it is listed immediately after the A object suggests to
me that they are related. The B object's dimensions and
inclination may provide a strong a clue to the A object's
final orbit, so they have been withheld from the U.N.

Of course any discussion about a possible Molniya orbit
for the A object must consider the payload of the Titan
IV, without a Centaur upper stage. Also, the NOSS 2 triad
members are about 2 magnitudes brighter than their
NOSS 1 counterparts, so probably they are significantly
larger. But how large? Could they fit into a 57 foot
shroud along with a Molniya bound payload?

Rainer Kracht derived a standard magnitude of 5.91 for NOSS 2 
objects, based on 233 observations by Russell Eberst. I can
make rough magnitude estimates based on the dimensions of
an object using my ephemeris program; however, they have 
been shown to be too faint by 1 to 1.5 magnitudes. When I
take this into account, I find that the NOSS 2 triad objects
are between about 1.5 and 2 meters across. That is not all
that large, Also, allowing for deployable structures, such
as panels, boom and antennae the stowed size may be quite
compact. I can easily see the triad and its carrier/upper
stage fitting into half of a 57 foot shroud. But could a
Molniya payload occupy the other half?

Consider that the two shuttle launched DOD Molniya payloads,
USA 40 and USA 89, occupied no more than about half of the
cargo bay of the shuttle, which has about the same dimensions 
as the 57 foot Titan shroud. We learned that from leaked info, 
press releases [as I recall from DOD-1], and verified it based 
on visual magnitude.

Also, consider the other similarities. Both of the shuttle-
deployed payloads lingered in LEO from 1 week to 3 months
before making their final manouevres. Both objects left
one upper stage in a transfer orbit. (532 km x 8135 km x 57 deg
in the case of 89061D, probably very similar in the case of
92086C). Both objects flashed, with a 1 s period, indicating
they were spin stabilized.

NOSS 2-1 remained in LEO for nearly two weeks before
deploying the triad. NOSS 2-2 deployed its payload more rapidly,
but may have manoeuvred at least once, from a 61 deg to a 63.4
transfer orbit. The current launch had remained in LEO for 
nearly 4 days as of the last reported sighting on 16 May.
NOSS 2-1 and 2-2 have classified B objects for which orbital
dimensions have not been classified with the U.N. - they could
easily be the transfer stages.

NOSS 2-1 flashed, but irregularly, and more slowly than the
shuttle deployed objects. The current payload has been reported
to be flashing irregularly as well.

In conclusion, the facts I have just reviewed seem to allow for
the possibility of a Molniya destination for the A object, but
the devil is in the details. For example, are there two completely 
separate payload carriers/upper stages  - one for the A object, 
the other for the NOSS triad? My guess is that there are. This
would provide maximum flexibility in reaching two separate orbital
planes. It seem unlikely that an NOSS payload and a Molniya one
would require the same plane, expect by coincidence. For example,
the NOSS 2-1 triad was placed in exactly the same plane as the
1-8 triad, but they waited in much lower 61 deg parking orbit,
first at about 280 km, later at 454 km. Why not direct insertion
into the 1-8 plane? Most likely because the A object was going
elsewhere, into a more easterly plane, and had to be manoeuvred
first.

Anyone have any additional thoughts on all this? I do not pretend
to have the answer, but I hope the preceding will stimulate
others to bring their expertise to bear.

bye for now