Tracking an unknown high altitude flasher

Ron Lee (ronlee@pcisys.net)
Sat, 18 Sep 1999 13:06:50 -0600

On 18 Sep 99 at about 03:20 UT I found my target stars for
an upcoming pass.  Almost immediately I saw a bright flasher
about three degrees higher.  It appeared relatively stationary
so I made a note of the time and location and waited for my
expected satellite.  It never appeared (I never saw it!) so I
went in and ran Skymap with Mike McCants GEO.TLE file.  To my
surprise nothing came close to matching.

I go back outside to see if it is still visible with the
intent of getting several positions/times.  Armed with a Skymap
chart of the area, binoculars, stopwatch, red flashlight and
recliner, I look in the area to the east of the initial target
stars and indeed it is still visible.  

So I decide to haul out the 8" telescope which required setting
up the electronic setting circles.  Fortunately I am still able to
find it after another 15 minutes or so delay.  It was apparent once
I got it in the scope that it was NOT a geosynchronous satellite.

It was moving too quickly to the east to be GEO.  After dealing with
an equipment problem, I finally make my first semi-precise obs one
hour after first seeing it.  I make two more observations in the next
16 minutes then go inside to make another star chart.  

Going outside I determine about how far the satellite should have
moved and reposition the scope.  Nothing in the eyepeiece.  Nothing
around that spot. Nothing visible in the finder scope. Then I look
in the target area with binoculars.  Nada.  Scanning reveals nothing.

After 10 minutes or so I finally give up.  Muttering under my breath
about losing something so easy to see in binoculars.  Back to the
computer to run Skymap with a file of satellites in eccentric orbits.
AHA! a possible match.  #23230 (ETS-6).  Running it shows excellent
agreement with observed positions.  The observed flash period around
11.5 seconds with approximate 3 and 8.x second intervals matched with
Ed's report.

Thus the mystery UNID was identified.  Why did I go to such trouble
for a known flasher?  At first, I thought it could have been a new GEO
flasher.  Of course I was wrong about the orbit.  I saw a probable
unknown high altitude flasher earlier this year that was never ID'ed.
So getting three or more positions would help nail it down.

Also earlier this year I saw an object that was likely an uncataloged
piece of an Ariane launch.  But my positions were less that precise
so Mike was unable to define a suitable orbit.  This episode just
reinforced my clumsiness at trying to get positions on a satellite
without knowing beforehand where it is going.  But it was fun despite
the problems and clumsiness.

Ron Lee