Watching the Watchers


At 4:12 p.m., Pacific time, on April 3, 2012, the National Reconnaissance Office – the 50-year old spy satellite agency whose existence the government didn’t admit until 1992 – launched a “payload,”  a classified radar satellite, NROL-25.  The launch was webcast live but the NRO didn’t want to reveal sensitive information about the satellite’s eventual orbit, so it cut off the webcast after three minutes.  Five hours later, a Canadian member of a loose group of amateur trackers watched the classified satellite pass overhead; then other trackers from Sweden, Russia, Scotland, and another Canadian watched it too.  They calculated its orbit. The tracker from the Netherlands was clouded out and didn’t see it until April 5, but he photographed, then filmed it. The whole thing is up on the internet.

I hardly know which question to start with.  Let’s begin with the questions I’m not going to ask:  what the NRO is up to, and what target that classified radar satellite is looking at, and why the target requires using radar and not regular optical imaging.  The answers I’d get would be neither exact nor satisfying.  I know this because I’ve spent time asking such questions and I swear, the people who answer them have taken lessons in stringing common English words into sentences that range from non-responsive to gibberish.  This pisses me off unbearably and I used to think I’d rather they just told me they weren’t going to answer.  But then I ran into some classified guy at a party and asked politely, “And what do you do?” and he said, “I can’t tell you,” and I wanted to yell, “Well for chrissakes then make something up, I was just being polite!”  The point is, classification is a mighty hard on friendly conversation with your fellow man.

No, the point is, I may have needed to get that off my chest but we’ve strayed from the subject: those amateur trackers.  They’re international – in addition to the countries above, they come from the U.S., England, South Africa, Australia, France, Germany – number around 15 to 25, and are mostly retired.   They operate out of their back yards using binoculars, stop watches, cameras, and math.  They’re not looking randomly around the sky, they’re looking for specific objects:  the International Space Station and the space shuttle carrying crews travelling to the station, satellites with decaying orbits, and mainly, classified satellites.  They hear about a launch – NRO announces launches which are full of conspicuous fire and thunder and not exactly secret – spot the satellite, communicate positions and trajectories to their colleagues, and calculate the orbit that the NRO doesn’t want them to calculate.

Orbits tell them something about the satellite itself.  A sun-synchronous orbit — that follows the sun’s path — is probably an optical satellite taking pictures, says Allen Thomson, a former intelligence analyst, of the same locations with the same sunlight and shadows.   A Molniya orbit sits over one location; Thomson says it’s probably a signals intelligence satellite.  The April 3 satellite’s orbit was retrograde – the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation – so it’s probably radar (for reasons I faintly understand and can’t begin to explain but having to do with the earth turning away from the satelllite, thereby enhancing the Doppler shift and ultimately the resolution of whatever the satellite is looking at).

Not that any of this is secret, though the tracker from the Netherlands says that they don’t publish everything they’ve seen.  The NRO reportedly doesn’t like the trackers but the trackers aren’t telling the bad guys anything the bad guys don’t already know.  Thomson says the bad guys can probably afford equipment better than stuff that trackers can order from Amazon.  The tracker from the Netherlands says, “If 15 retired hobbyists with simple equipment can do this, then rogue nations certainly can.  They really don’t need us.”

The trackers are space nerds, they like looking at space-type things that are supposed to be secret. Tracking is their definition of fun.  Some of them were at one time employed as government trackers, many have been tracking since the first decade of the space age.  They feel as though they’re recording a hidden history – the Netherlands tracker is an archeologist and thinks of his hobby as space archeology.

The trackers also don’t much like secrecy — I heard about them because the Federation of American Scientists‘ secrecy-hating Steven Aftergood put it in his Secrecy News – and like to point out that the UN Outer Space Treaty asks countries to disclose the whereabouts of their satellites.  The Netherlands tracker adds that the trackers have seen satellites going out of control within a few weeks of launch, and the US government won’t mention it until a year later when the thing becomes a public menace.  They’re currently watching an out-of-control 1.5 ton Japanese spy satellite, he says, that’s coming down mid-2012.

I’m always impressed by amateurs doing for free and pleasure the things that professionals are paid to do.  I’m also impressed that stuff this close to being classified is all over the internet – a person could make a career of following the links of these links.  I’m not sure whether this internet ubiquity is a testament to our country’s relative openness, or the internet’s ability to find dusty corners, or the irresistibility of secrets.

Meanwhile, the NRO is in the middle of a series of launches with an “unprecedented operational tempo” – oh yeah? and what’s that unprecedented tempo all about?  Good luck finding out.  And I wouldn’t google “NRO” and “patches” either — these are the fairly normal-looking ones.


Photos of launch patches:  National Reconnaissance Office

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11 thoughts on “Watching the Watchers

  1. Fascinating…I think this article is going to inspire more amateur trackers. (I already have binoculars, a stop watch, and a reasonable grip on math; I’m on my way! And I’m particularly curious about that 1.5 ton Japanese spy satellite…)

    Also, as an aside, I’ve often wondered about the toll classification (“I can’t tell you what I do”) might take on intimate relationships or friendships. The story you told, above, made me laugh aloud at my desk just now.

  2. Meagan, the links in the post should get you to the trackers, if you really are on your way. And I’ve had that same question about classification too. Most scientists I know who deal with classified stuff do it as only a small part of their lives, though they do say it interferes with their relationships with their students. But I can’t quite imagine a marriage, for instance, in which one of the people couldn’t tell the other one what the day was like.

  3. Great post, Ann. I was particularly fascinated to read that one of the trackers was an archaeologist–an expert, of course, at looking for needles in haystacks.

  4. OMG this is so cool–it’s just like Anathem! [Sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson in which adventure is kicked off by a bunch of nerds tracking something in orbit that the government doesn’t want them to track. Wacky, and extremely nerdy, hijinks ensue.]

  5. Fascinating post. Seems like technology for the masses plus the internet= it’s much harder to keep secrets.

  6. An easy way to get started watching satellites is to go to the Heavens Above page ( ), enter your location — it doesn’t have to be particularly accurate, just using the built-in cities database will do — and have it make predictions for your brightest satellite passes that evening. Or morning if you’re an early riser. Watching a few satellites with just the naked eye will give a feel for how they move across the sky and what they look like.

    The only thing to watch out for is that the brightness scale (visual magnitude) in the predictions runs backwards: larger numbers are fainter and negative numbers are brighter than positive numbers. So the space station, ISS, is often in the negative numbers.

  7. Fascinating… And you might like Patrick McCray’s book on the Sputnik trackers… also amateurs, who outdid the best tech of the time. Very similar! It’s called Keep Watching the Skies.

  8. But I can’t quite imagine a marriage, for instance, in which one of the people couldn’t tell the other one what the day was like.

    Generally, they clear the spouse too, albeit to a lower level. It is recognised that they’ll pick up little bits here or there, especially if they have (unclassified) subject area knowledge. Or, like Mrs S-E, if you’re a psychologist and just experiment on my work-mates at social events.

    The other thing is that it is the detailed subject matter that is normally very highly classified, not the day-to-day “we got the project almost back on track and then some idiot spent all the training budget we were hoping to use for the engineers on the new comms system getting some management guru in to speak at the C-stream”.

  9. @#1 Meagan: the out-of-control Japanese satellite is IGS 1B, a radar-satellite launched in 2003 that kept a Radar eye on the N-Korean rocket program but malfunctioned in 2007. It has since come steadily down and will probably reenter the atmosphere in or around August this year. It is one of those that can easily be seen by the naked eye even from an urban environment.

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