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Tracking Satellites That Aren't There 66

stacybro writes "Wired is running an interesting article about amateur astronomers tracking "black" satellites." From the article: "The observers, who congregate on a Web site called Heavens-Above and a mailing list called SeeSat-L, have amassed an impressive collection of information and expertise. For two decades, they have played a high tech game of hide-and-seek with the US's National Reconnaissance Office, a secretive satellite agency. By coordinating their efforts, amateur observers in Europe, North America, and South Africa monitor satellites at different phases of their journeys and extrapolate the precise dimensions of their orbits." This is in addition to the ones we know about and even the ones we think we know about.
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Tracking Satellites That Aren't There

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  • by vmcto ( 833771 ) * on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @04:58PM (#14619665) Homepage Journal
    Although in my gut I don't particularly like the fact that our military satellite orbits are known to all who care to look on the Internet, the article gets the moral of the story right.

    If these guys can do it in their spare time with binoculars and phone calls, so can anyone else.

    Time and time again security through obscurity has proven to be a fallacy.

    And if this group has increased the awareness of that fact to the US military then they are indeed performing a valuable service.

    The apparent fact that they forced a step-function change in satellite stealth technology (Misty, Misty2) offers convincing proof.
    • hopefully, but the problem is looking at their track record they often try to respond to such challenges by silencing them.
    • It isnt exactly security through anything, what good does it do knowing that one sattelite is there.... knowing where a hundred sattelites doesnt do you much good if there are actually a thousand... its basically, well useless
      • by Fnordulicious ( 85996 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @05:21PM (#14619948) Homepage
        You don't appear to have read the article.

        Knowing where spy satellites are is vital if you're trying to hide something. Since even the US doesn't have and can't afford a globe covering spy satellite system a la Iridium, the eye in the sky can't be watching you every minute of the day. Thus if you know the orbits of the spy satellites you can time things to keep your unpleasant business a secret. Even if you don't know where *all* of the satellites are, knowing where some of them are is better than nothing.

        Consider the situation where you want to move a pile of refined weapon-grade plutonium out of your nuclear power station reactor. It's not something you're supposed to be doing, since that reactor is ostensibly for power generation, not for armament production. You don't exactly want to do this when people are watching because it's rather obvious when you park a big shielded truck outside your reactor and load the plutonium onto it. So you want to pick a time that the bird's eye won't be watching, or at least when it won't get a good view of what's going on. This will keep you from having to answer to the IAEA or the UN or any other nuclear busybodies. This worked pretty well for India.
        • You don't appear to have read the article.

          You don't appear to understand the point I made.

          Knowing where spy satellites are is vital if you're trying to hide something.

          Yes. You are correct about that. I understand that.

          So my question to you is: How does stopping the amateurs mentioned in the article prevent any of that from ocurring?

          Bzzzzt. Time's up.

          It doesn't. Which was my whole point. If friendly smiley people can do it, then not-so-friendly-crazed-dictators-with-nuclear-amb i tions
        • it's rather obvious when you park a big shielded truck outside your reactor and load the plutonium onto it
          Heavy metals by their nature come in small volumes for their weight. A couple of guys with a trolley loading a big wooden crate containing lead and plutonium into a van isn't going to look like much from even a satellite that has looped in very low. If your are talking about tonnes of the stuff it is a different story - but where would you find that much?
    • "Time and time again security through obscurity has proven to be a fallacy."

      Well, it did slow the process down by a pretty long time. For the military, that's often a very important advantage.
      • You are absolutely correct. And time is a big advantage.

        Which is why I'm glad the NRO stepped up their game and actually developed (apparently) a satellite that actively positions in an orientation that makes it difficult to impossible for known, targeted observers to actually know that they are being targeted.

        In the end, it's still security through obscurity, but it's a hell of a lot better effort at the obscurity part.
      • Well, it did slow the process down by a pretty long time.

        Did it?
        We'll never know if the "bad guys" have been plotting these orbits since day-2.
        The problem with any 'secret' is that it can leave you with a false sense of security - and that's often far more dangerous than knowing that the original information was public knowledge.
        Organisations who rely on secrets that can be easily observed or discovered are setting themselves up for failure. So what decisions are/were made based on the assumption tha

    • If the military was smart it would list the sattalites pubically as somthing innocous.
    • by Forbman ( 794277 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @06:31PM (#14620783)
      Although in my gut I don't particularly like the fact that our military satellite orbits are known to all who care to look on the Internet, the article gets the moral of the story right.

      Well...most satellites have limited propellant onboard to do anything more except adjust their orbit to maintain its intended design, whether it is a geostationary orbit or a "normal" orbiting orbit. They do not carry sufficient propellant to move from a polar orbit to a less inclined orbit, a high apogee orbit to low apogee orbit, etc. Orbital mechanics are pretty straight forward, and it only takes a few observations of some object to figure out its orbit. If they do, they have a very finite amount, and any large scale manouvering is not undertaken lightly, as it directly affects the lifetime of the satellite.

      the obscurity required in this case isn't information about the orbit, nor should anyone really care, but on the use and purpose of the satellite. Is that "black" satellite a RORSAT? LIDAR? SIGINT? Keyhole? VESTA? THAT part about the satellite and its mission is the real secret. Orbital information has been published in astronomy magazines for some time anyways.

      If you've read any tom clancy novels, you would understand that most of the baddies already know when the intelligence satellites are going to be overhead, and adjust their activities accordingly if they don't want to be directly observed.

      If they are observed, either they don't know (hardly likely these days) or they DO want us to know.

      Even the civilian LANDSAT and other geo-observational satellites could be determined to be "spy" satellites. Want to see how Iran's economy is doing? Use LANDSAT to monitor over time their agricultural lands. If the measured land isn't "right", then their crops have failed, which means more instabilit.
      • Ever heard of a reaction wheel? Basically, it's a spinning gyroscope, with a servo on the end of the axis. By turning against the force axis, a satellite (or the space station, or any other body) can reorient itself. With enough surplus solar power budget for this sort of thing, a satellite could rotate at will without burning a limited resource like propellant.

        • Yes, I've heard of them... even saw them being manufactured once at a Honeywell plant. But the poster did not say that propellant was the *only* way to move a satellite. The discussion was about hiding satellites and changing their orbits to avoid detection. That's not something you're going to do without propellant (and a lot of it).

          Reaction wheels are great, but they only have a few real uses. One is to orient the satellite for communicating with Earth, or aiming a telescope at a star, etc. Anothe

        • You can't change an orbit with a reaction wheel. Reaction wheels are for pointing and positioning. the delta V required for even a degree of plane change is enormous.
      • that most of the baddies already know when the intelligence satellites are going to be overhead, and adjust their activities accordingly if they don't want to be directly observed.

        Well then what we should do is send up a bunch of fake satellites, reflective balloons, spaced out so that one is always overhead in every hostile country in the world. Every rocket that sends up a real satellite could have 2 or 3 balloons too. Maybe throw a thruster on the balloons to shuffle them around like a shell game to th
    • The defense that because anyone can do this (or rather, here, any other large group of obsessed, well-coordinated individuals working doggedly for over a decade could do this), it is therefore ethical to do so strikes me as nonsense. That is true of lots of other activities everyone would agree are improper. To offer up a silly example: just about anyone *can* buy a sniper rifle, climb to a clocktower, and plunk down civilians. Anyone *can* monitor your cell phone traffic and sell it to a jealous ex. E
      • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @07:17PM (#14621310)
        there appears to be evidence people whom most folks would agree are "Bad" use info about satellite patterns to go about their doing their Bad things. Why have your hobby be making their life easier?

        Because there is evidence that the same organizations whose purpose is going after what you call "bad" people are increasingly turning their weapons against us. When agents from a bureau whose self-stated mission is "to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats and to enforce the criminal laws of the United States" [] come to believe they have the right to collect any data at all about you, even library cards, without any valid search warrant, you should better start worrying. In my dictionary, an officer of the government who feels no need to respect the Constitution is as "Bad" as it gets.

        Amassing as much data as we can about the methods and equipment those secret agencies have that they could use against us is an act of collective self-defense. It goes in the same spirit as the freedom to "keep and bear arms" against an opressive government.

        • I fully agree.

          Also, for me it would be a question of curiousity. I like to know about things. Last year I went stargazing with some friends, and we spotted a formation of three satellites moving across the sky. I thought that was unbelievably weird, and I wanted to know what they were.

          Fortunately, the kind of hobbyists depicted in the article had already done the hard work for me, and I was able to find out that they belong to the US Navy, although their purpose seems uncertain.
      • Remember, these are people all over the world tracking U.S. satellites. It's quite possible that some of them consider US the bad guys, or at least don't think of us as particularly good, so there is no ethical problem.
    • Time and time again security through obscurity has proven to be a fallacy.

      An impossibility, one might say, but certainly not a fallacy []. Fallacies are invalid supporting logic.
  • by blackmonday ( 607916 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @04:58PM (#14619673) Homepage
    "Nothing to see here, please move along".

    Never has it been so relevant.

  • Heavens-Above (Score:5, Informative)

    by CheshireCatCO ( 185193 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @05:04PM (#14619742) Homepage
    For the record, isn't just devoted to tracking spy sats, although I would have gotten that impression from the blurb. The site tracks all kinds of satellites -- including ISS, the shuttle (if it were up), and the Iridium constellation. It's not just for people with a specific interest in spy sats and it is in fact very handy if you want to see what you might be able to see on a given night before going out to observe. (Showing friends or students the shuttles, the space station, or Iridium flares is pretty neat, so I always take a look before observing.)
    • Quite so - I use Heavens Above and didn't even know about these secret satellites. If I can't see them I pretty much don't care.

      Just about the time my daughter turned two, one of her favorite things to do was to go outside when the ISS was flying overhead and wave furiously and yell "Hi" as loud as she could because I told her there were people living on ISS.
  • Misunderestimated? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by warmgun ( 669556 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @05:16PM (#14619892)
    I sometimes wonder, when I read stories like this, if the government is smarter than think. What if these "holes" in national security are just bones the government is throwing to the public to make them seem like they can't hide anything? Just a wacky conspiracy theory for a boring Wednesday afternoon.
    • by mslinux ( 570958 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @06:27PM (#14620741)
      It's a red herring... they're trying to keep us from noticing the satellites going the other way (against the rotation of the earth)... they're up there, you just don't expect them to be going backwards. So when someone sees one, they think it was a fluke.

      "Hey, Bob, did you see that? It looked like a satellite going the wrong way. Have you been drinking hard cider again Henry? You know they always travel over the shed in the backyard toward the school house... that's the only way they can go! I've been drinking beer and tracking these things for damn near 20 years and I ain't once seen one come from that direction..."
  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2006 @05:16PM (#14619898) Journal
    The last bit on "How to Track a Black Bird" doesn't seem to say anything about making sure to avoid looking at the sun especially with binoculars.
    • Perhaps because it assumes that you'll be intelligent? That you won't be doing something silly like trying to spot satellites visually during the daytime?
    • Crap. You figured out ou...umm...the Feds' backup plan. Back to the drawing board, I guess.
  • ...against a black background?

    It's on fire?
    • If you made a black satellite, it'd probably stay rather warm when it's behind the earth and heat up lots when exposed to the sun. So it would at least melt, though probably the combustion would be limited.
  • by hob42 ( 41735 )
    The public satellites are the ones that we know that we know, and these are the ones we know we don't know.

    What about the ones that we don't know that we don't know?
  • Dubya to order the FBI to shut down /. in 3, 2, 1^HNKLH&*@*^^#Y(BHO)@*Y(#H)@*G
  • Here are the names, locations, and frequencies of all the US Spy Satellites:

    Freq Az Dir Velocity Alt
    [Edited by NSA]
    [Edited by NSA]
    [Edited by NSA]
    [Edited by NSA]
    [Edited by NSA]
    [Edited by NSA]

    Maybe it's one thing to find this stuff out for yourself, but posting it online?
    Thats just giving away information. Of course, there are some 8,000 man made objects in orbit right now that are tracked by our government... most of it is just trash though. []
    • The original poster is right to express concern about posting this information online and in a public place. When "The Hunt For the Red October" was released, its author was interrogated by the CIA to figure out how he ascertained the real-life technical information for his books, a part of which was classified. He gathered all of the information from scattered "open source" (non-classified) locations, whose contained information were all unclassified when kept separate. However, when compiled together, it
      • No, it doesn't matter if they post it publicly or not. My point was these are NOT American citizens, they're standing in their own lands, watching big shiny American satellites floating over their heads and reporting them. The satellites aren't exactly secret, and they're not in U.S. territory. The U.S. classification of information is not applicable to them.

        This is where the concept of "Security through obscurity" is proven wrong yet again. If the NRO believed that these satellites were somehow "secr

    • Depending on the sattelite, all you need to see it is an inexpensive telescope or binoculars (or even the naked eye in some cases e.g. ISS I think) and you can see whatever is up there.
      Trying to stop people from A.Looking at what is in the sky and B.Tracking where it goes and its orbital pattern is futile, anyone with some skills can figure this out.

      What might be a concern is if, somehow, these people are able to identify exactly what sattelite it is. (for the classified sattelites anyway)
    • Maybe it's one thing to find this stuff out for yourself, but posting it online? Thats just giving away information.

      Um, yes. So what?

      Indeed, it's not even giving away information - the satellites themselves go that by being visible. The site merely collects and passes along information.

      If you want to keep stuff secret, you have to put it where nobody (except those sworn to be your loyal thralls) can see it. If anyone can look up and see it, it's not secret, and pointing guns at people who talk about

  • They are watching us. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
  • A government agency of any size will be able to afford radar to track our sattelites. These provide much more accurate and instantaneous data than what individual video observations can provide.
    Here's a report [] on the NOSS sattelites with a wealth of information about the sats that no amateur could ever get.

    While individual terrorists probably don't have the resources (beyond heavens-above) to track sattelites, they probably aren't moving things obvious enough to matter anyway.
  • by Russ Nelson ( 33911 ) <> on Thursday February 02, 2006 @03:08AM (#14623832) Homepage
    There's an extra iridium sat or two up there. I went out to view a flare, and saw it.... but it was brighter than I was expecting. Less than a minute later I saw the real flare.
  • So there's always a GPS satellite or four overhead, but we have trouble keeping enough spy sats to see everything?

    Shouldn't we just fill the sky with enough dummies mixed with the "real" spys so that no-one can tell the difference? Dummy survelance cameras at Walmart are almost as effective as the real thing. Just move around which are the real, and which are the bogus. Imagine you had concentric rings of satellites with every other ring in retrograde.
  • The way to find these stealth birds is the same way you find a cloaked Romulan warbird. Look for distortions in the background star field. Jeeze, you'd think someone here would have done their research. (:-)

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