The Quickbird-1 launch failure

Sven Grahn

The Quickbird-1 satellite was launched from Plesetsk at 2300 UT on 20 November, 2000 on a Kosmos-3M rocket. Clearly the satellite never reached the 600 km circular orbit at about 66 degrees inclination. The U. Space Command generated two element sets. One set was valid for a hypothetical northbound equator crossing just before launch and the second set was valid for the first southbound equator crossing after launch. The element sets were quite similar.  The second element set corresponds to an altitude range of 79-611 km while the first element set corresponds to a range of 83-615 km. I think the two orbits were determined from the same site, but referred to two different epochs (or equator crossings).

The object that Space Command tracked and called Quickbird passed over the horizon of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific at about 2327-2335 UT. This is a place where the U.S. has many powerful radars  Then there were no other sensors that could have tracked it before its assumed decay at about 0010-0015 UT. When it passed over Kwajalein (8.7 N, 167.5 E) its altitude (according to the element set published by NASA) was about 610 km. This was at the apogee of the transfer orbit, which had its perigee at the opposite equator crossing at an altitude near 80 km. The apogee near Australia was probably the point where the second stage would have fired again to circularize the orbit - well out of range of any Russian ground station. This has been standard procedure for Kosmos-3M launches. When circularizing the orbit of standard Parus navsats the second stage ignites again near the Antarctic.

So, it seems that the transfer orbit set up by the Kosmos-3M was correct. What then happened is difficult to know. The small difference in altitudes between the two orbital determinations may not be significant, i.e. they probably do not represent any change in orbit generated by an interrupted second stage burn.

The map shown here summarizes the flight of Quickbird-1. The visibility horizons at the two observations sites match the altitude at these occasions. The observation in Montevideo of a re-entry at about 0010 UT on 21 November, 2000 matches this flight path well.

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