DSLWP-B’s journey to the Moon: part I

As you may well know, on May 20 a CZ-4C rocket launched from Xichang, China, to deliver Queqiao, the Chang’e 4 relay satellite, to the Moon. Queqiao is a communications relay satellite designed to orbit the L2 point of the Earth-Moon system, supporting the future Chang’e 4 rover that will land on the far side of the Moon. From the L2 point, Queqiao has a good view of both the Earth and the far side of the Moon.

This launch was shared by the DSLWP-A and -B microsatellites, also called Longjiang 1 and 2. These two satellites are designed to be put on a 200 x 9000km lunar orbit and their main scientific mission is a proof of concept of the Discovering the Sky at Longest Wavelengths experiment, a radioastronomy HF interferometer that uses the Moon as a shield from Earth’s interferences.

The DSLWP satellites carry an Amateur radio payload which consists of a 250 baud (or 500 baud) GMSK transmitter which uses \(r=1/2\) or \(r=1/4\) turbo codes, a JT4G beacon, and a camera allowing open telecommand (such as the camera on BY70-1 and LilacSat-1). A year ago, while the radio system was being designed, I wrote a post about DSLWP’s SSDV downlink, which transmits the images taken by the camera.

Wei Mingchuan BG2BHC, who is part of the DSLWP team, has been posting updates on Twitter about the status of the mission. If you’ve been following these closely, you’ll already know that unfortunately radio contact with DSLWP-A was lost on the UTC afternoon of May 22. Since then, all tries to contact the spacecraft have failed (the team will publicly release more information about its fate soon). On the other hand, DSLWP-B has been successfully injected into lunar orbit and is now orbiting the Moon since the UTC afternoon of May 25.

More posts will follow about the radio communications of DSLWP, but this series of posts will deal with the orbital dynamics part of the mission. In this first post, I will look at the tracking files released so far by Wei, which can be used to compute the spacecraft’s position and Doppler.

A brief study of TLE variation

During my research and experiments about using WSJT-X modes through linear transponder satellites, one of the questions I had is by how much do TLEs of different epochs for the same satellite vary. This was glimpsed in part II, where I plotted the “best delay” parameter for TLEs of different age.

The topic of accuracy in TLE computation and propagation is rather complex. A NORAD TLE is the result of an orbit determination after several radar measurements at different epochs, so the elements are in some sense “averaged” over time. Also, the SGP4 propagator is simple and doesn’t model many orbit perturbations. However, NORAD TLEs are specially crafted to give improved results when used with SGP4.

Nevertheless, here I present a simple way of studying the rate of change of NORAD TLEs at different epochs. This procedure might not be very meaningful or sophisticate, but still seems to yield some interesting results.