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Hobbyists track secret orbits of spy satellites

by Staff Writers
Ottawa (AFP) Feb 20, 2008
When the United States shoot down one of its wayward top-secret spy satellites this week, a global group of 20 hobbyists were keen to unearth heavenly mysteries will be watching.

They routinely track satellites in secret orbits and publish their findings online, rattling spy agencies that would rather not tip off their targets when an eye in the sky is watching them.

"We're all children of the space age, approaching or well into our retirement, who have known each other for decades and simply have a common interest: satellite-spotting," said Ted Molczan, 54, of Toronto.

Equipped with little more than a pair of binoculars or telescope on a tripod, a stop watch and star charts, he and his fellow stargazers have tracked more than 190 military satellites flying in secret orbits 2,000-40,000 kilometers (1,250-25,000 miles) above the Earth.

Thousands more of the non-classified variety are visible using binoculars and telescopes, and hundreds can even be seen by the naked eye "as twinkling lights" in the night sky, he said.

US officials have said they would prefer the hobbyists not publish their findings, suggesting that foreign countries try to hide their activities when they know a spy satellite will be passing overhead.

But Molczan countered: "In a democracy, there's a necessary and healthy tug-of-war between people in government who tend to want to make things secret and the public's need and right to know."

From his 23rd-floor balcony, Molczan peers at a point in the sky where a satellite is expected to cross. When the shimmering dot appears, he determines its direction and the distance it travels across the sky, and calculates its speed.

"You're trying to find a small needle in a very big haystack," he said. "If you like technical challenges, it's not a bad hobby."

Thousands of satellite spotters around the world search the skies for historical relics of the space age such as Vanguard One, America's second satellite launched in 1958.

They can also watch for the distinctive flare of sunlight glittering off communications satellites' solar panels, or snap photos of large satellite silhouettes as they pass in front of the sun.

Most are drawn to the analysis, math, physics, computer sciences, history and even international relations involved because "spy satellites are instruments of government policies," Molczan explained.

"Anybody who is suitably motivated and of reasonable intelligence can learn this stuff within a few weeks."

Molczan's subgroup began to focus on spy satellites in the 1980s, collaborating on sightings to determine their orbit and guess at their function.

In June 1983, the United States ceased publishing the orbits of its military satellites. But Mosczan's group was determined not to lose track of them.

In the 1990s, they identified the first US stealth satellite that was supposed to be invisible to radar and optical tracking.

When the US government announced last month that a top-secret spy satellite would soon come falling out of the sky, officials said there was little risk to people, but offered few details about the satellite itself.

Such information came instead from Molczan and his group, who identified it as USA-193. Another hobbyist, John Locker of Britain, posted photos of it on his website.

The satellite, built by Lockheed Martin and operated by the secretive US National Reconnaissance Office, failed shortly after being launched in December 2006.

"I can't speak to what's on the spacecraft," said Molczan. "But its (frozen) orbit reveals that it was meant for sensing or imaging populated parts of the Earth."

If the USS Lake Erie cruiser shoots it down with specially modified interceptor missiles this week over the Pacific Ocean, as planned, it is unlikely anyone will see "a big spectacular explosion," Molczan said.

Rather, "you're likely going to get a debris cloud that will burn up high in the sky that might look like a very brief meteor shower."

And because the sun will be near setting west of the Hawaiian Islands, where the shoot-down is scheduled, it's unlikely anyone would even see the blast. "You'd be looking towards the sun and it won't be dark yet."

"Instead, we'll have to wait until the next day for spotters in Europe to say it didn't appear in its normal orbit" to confirm that it was shot down, Molczan said.

Editor's note: This article was published before the successful missile strike against the satellite.

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