The Continuing Mystery Saga of USA 276

Marco Langbroek has had an eye on USA 276, and I’m absolutely fascinated by his analysis. Back in June, the SpaceX-launched, Ball Aerospace-built NRO satellite, USA 276, made an extremely close approach to the ISS, right when SpaceX’s CRS-11 mission was to arrive, and right when Orbital ATK’s OA-7 mission suddenly departed early:

The curious case of USA 276 is complicated by the sheer number of “coincidences” that appear to be involved. It is very easy (and dangerous) to descend into conspiracy theory and see everything as related. For example, consider the following summary list of “coincidences.” The quotation marks in this case are to indicate that it is open to debate whether this all is coincidental or not. Some or maybe all of them likely are true coincidences, but I leave it to the reader to decide:

1. The “coincidental” similarity of the USA 276 orbit to that of the ISS;

2. The launch moment “coincidentally” resulting in a very close encounter a mere month after launch;

3. The “coincidence” that the close encounter distance stayed just outside the ISS safety zone, with a small margin only, just enough to avoid safety issues;

4. The “coincidence” that the close approach happened around the approach and berthing of a US cargo ship, Dragon CRS-11.

But there is more:

5. When the launch of the Dragon CRS-11 was postponed for technical reasons, “coincidentally” it was decided that another US cargo ship, Cygnus OA-7, was suddenly to be unberthed from the ISS, a month ahead of the original schedule, on what would have been the original arrival date of CRS-11;

6. Ball Aerospace, the same company that built USA 276, “coincidentally” also built RAVEN, an instrument to monitor spacecraft approaching the ISS that was “coincidentally” attached to the outside of the ISS only a few months before the USA 276 close encounter;

7. As a commenter on my blog remarked, one of the US astronauts on board the ISS during the close approach, US Air Force Colonel Jack D. Fischer, “coincidentally” happens to have a military background in the space intelligence community (he served in the Space and Intelligence Capabilities Office), and his presence on the ISS was “coincidentally” bumped up to the current 51/52 ISS expedition. He originally was scheduled for the later 52/53 expedition: the change in his crew assigment was announced late November 2016.
That is quite a list of coincidences.

My own take on this all is that I think it is possible, but not certain, that the close approach was deliberate and meant to test space-based technologies to monitor grapplings and berthings of third-party objects. If this is correct, I tend to see the coincidence of the flyby with the originally planned Dragon arrival, but also the sudden undocking of Cygnus OA-7 when Dragon CRS-11 was postponed, as related to the technology demonstration. The relevance of the other coincidences is more conjectural: I tend to see the rescheduling of astronaut Jack Fischer as likely unrelated, for example.

After the recent shuffling of TDRS-M and CRS-12 launch dates which delayed the CRS-12 launch until August 14, Marco noticed something else curious:

Interesting. This will bring Dragon CRS-12 at the ISS while (on current orbit) USA 276 makes another close ISS approach. Is @SpaceX aware?

I asked Marco when the closest approach would be this time around, and he said:

Difficult to say. Nominal close approach with current orbit is on or near Aug 18, but uncertainty at least a day. Also, maybe manoeuvres

A few things that make this USA 276 close approach strange:

NASA nor Boeing have divulged details about the TDRS-M incident, but its launch date slipped from August 3 to 10 which pushed CRS-12 to August 14, and then nearly immediately TDRS-M was pushed to August 20. CRS-12 is still set for August 14, even though we’re two full weeks from its original launch date of August 10—well within SpaceX’s turnaround time.

August 14 is pretty tight for a CRS-12 launch—it’d give them one or two opportunities before they’d have to stand down because of a Russian EVA happening on August 17. That Russian EVA is set to release two satellites, so CRS-12 would have to wait until their orbits are determined and can be taken into account for navigation purposes. I’m not sure why NASA would want to launch CRS-12 so tight up against a hard window like that rather than shift it back a few days now that the range is clear.

All of this is happening right when USA 276 is making its closest approach—“on or near Aug 18, but uncertainty at least a day.”

As Marco said in his article on USA 276’s first close approach, “It is very easy (and dangerous) to descend into conspiracy theory and see everything as related.” But everything related to USA 276 continues to be weird.

Once USA 276 makes a close approach to the ISS without there being a lot of activity happening outside the ISS, I’ll get off the topic.