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Spying on the Spooks

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  • Lou Novacheck
    *20120820-Spying on the Spooks* http://www.psmag.com/culture/spying-on-the-spooks-44780/ Armed with binoculars and a standard camera, a different sort of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 27, 2012
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      *20120820-Spying on the Spooks*

      http://www.psmag.com/culture/spying-on-the-spooks-44780/



      Armed with binoculars and a standard camera, a different sort of
      birdwatcher keeps tabs on the world's spy satellites. From the courtyard
      of his house in the center of his Dutch hometown of Leiden, Marco Langbroek
      spies on American military satellites, and makes no secret about it. He
      blogs about it. <http://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/>



      While thousands of amateurs track the world's
      orbiters<http://www.satobs.org/seesat/seesatindex.html#Intro>,
      Langbroek is part of a small subset-- about 20 loosely affiliated members
      from around the world: Russia, Canada, South Africa, Texas, he says--focused
      on covert launches. They're generally not spies themselves, just
      enthusiastic fanboys.



      Langbroek, for example, earns his livelihood digging into the earth, not
      looking up at the heavens. He's an
      archaeologist<http://vu-nl.academia.edu/MarcoLangbroek> who
      studies Neanderthal camp sites in order to understand how they organized
      their communities.



      Locating celestial spyware requires no special gear, just a few
      over-the-counter tools. That means a good pair of bird-watching binoculars,
      a tripod, and a first-year course in calculus. "I use a 50 millimeter lens
      on my camera," Langbroek says.



      The hobby traces its origins to Pierre Neirinck, a Frenchman the British
      recruited to track satellites in the 1970s. "In the early days," Langbroek
      says, "before the Western powers had established a large tracking network,
      they enlisted the help of amateur observers. But by the late 70s they no
      longer needed us, and the hobby went in decline." As Desmond King-Hele
      describes the British optical tracking effort then in his book "A Tapestry
      of Orbits": "... The staff melted away, being reduced by 1979 to just one (or
      perhaps two - Pierre by day and Pierre by night)."



      Then, in 1984 the U.S. stopped publishing information about "classified"
      orbiters. The few remaining amateurs took that as a challenge, and "our
      hobby in its modern incarnation was born."



      "We track all classified satellites--Japanese, German, Israeli, French,
      Indian, about 100," Langbroek says. While Langbroek himself is a good
      enough hobbyist to have discovered new asteroids (the International
      Astronomical Union <http://www.iau.org/> has named one his discoveries
      after him <http://home.wanadoo.nl/marco.langbroek/>, among spy satellite
      observers he considers himself a relative "newbie", having started in 2005.
      But by meticulously detailing and photographing the passage of spy
      satellites, Langbroek is one of the rising stars in this community that's
      still coordinated, at age 86, by Neirinck.



      Recently, for example, the non-profit, non-partisan Federation of American
      Scientists, which rides check on government
      secrecy<http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/govsec/index.html>
      , linked the speedy detection of a swarm of spooky new
      satellites<http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2012/04/sat_detected.html>
      launched
      by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO, to Langbroek's
      blog<http://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/2012/04/fia-radar-2-nrol-25-observed-with-video.html>
      .



      While the images and movies Langbroek posts on his blog can be
      fascinating<http://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/2012/04/fia-radar-2-nrol-25-observed-with-video.html>,
      his descriptions can be rough slogging for readers unaccustomed to rocket
      jargon: "This is the third launch (assuming that the failed USA 193 was the
      first) in the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) series. It received the SSC
      catalogue entry #38109, international Cospar launch code 2012-014A."



      And what you see in space, Langbroek notes, is really only a hint of what
      makes these satellites intriguing. The real secrets of these orbiters are
      the information they gather, and you can't observe those with binoculars.
      "If I can see the satellites, so can any other interested nation. It's like
      trying to park an aircraft carrier under the Golden Gate Bridge, then
      saying its position is Top Secret. It's ridiculous." But he acknowledges
      that while a giant aircraft carrier leashed to the Golden Gate may be
      obvious, any secrets inside its hull are closely guarded.



      And there are those in the military arena angered by amateurs like
      Langbroek. Last year, a government journal published a defense contractor's
      paper <http://www.hsaj.org/?fullarticle=7.1.10> that accused "amateur
      satellite trackers," of "aiding terrorists." Langbroek replied to such
      complaints from military industry in an email to Pacific Standard. "We
      exercise self-restraint. We always consider the potential effects of what
      we make public. Information considered sensitive remains secret."



      While Langbroek does not appear to represent any threat to this nation's
      spy program, he still comes in for scrutiny. "I have noted some 'weird'
      visits to my weblog in the statistics the site gathers," Langbroek wrote in
      an email to Pacific Standard. He says his site has picked up "Internet
      provider" visits from CIA and other spy agencies, as well as the U.S.
      senate and the executive office of the U.S. president.



      "We're aware of groups of hobbyists that track our satellites, but our
      mission is classified and we don't comment on them," says Loretta DeSio,
      director of the office of corporate communication at the National
      Reconnaissance Office, She declined to say whether these "hobbyists"
      information was accurate or whether it created security issues.



      Still, blogs like Langbroek's appear to have strategic value for some. "A
      few years ago," he says, "when Israel was bombing Hezbollah in southern
      Lebanon, and it became clear the U.S. provided Israel with timely satellite
      imagery, someone from Lebanon searched on my blog for information about the
      satellites' capabilities." Langbroek believes the satellites are capable of
      seeing details as small as four inches.



      Governments are not always accountable for their satellites, Langbroek
      says. He warned, for instance, that a huge Japanese spy satellite was
      tumbling from orbit. The only word from Japan was that "there is no risk."
      When the big bird came to a fiery landing in the Pacific on July 26, the
      world took notice. "Just a little change in solar activity would have meant
      it could have come down in northwest Europe," he notes, dumping 1.2 tons of
      spacecraft into one of the most populated regions on Earth.

      The next secret launch Langbroek and the merry hobbyists await will be
      September
      6 <http://www.satobs.org/noss.html> from Vandenberg Air Force Base in
      California <http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/going-ballistic-42851/>.
      "The guessing is that it will be a pair of [U.S. Naval Ocean Surveillance
      System] satellites," he says. Flying in pairs in close formation these
      satellites keep a look out on the high seas for pirates, as well as
      shipping action in the tense Persian Gulf.



      Recently, the NRO offered NASA two of its retired spy satellites to augment
      its very busy and successful Hubble satellite. Langbroek said the offer was
      one of the best reasons for tracking these secret moonlets. "When it comes
      to innovation in space research everyone looks at NASA. But NASA's only the
      public face. The other side is the NRO, where in many ways the real
      experimentation and innovation takes place."



      Langbroek the archeologist sees his work contributing to the history of
      science by discovering innovations that otherwise might have remained
      unknown. "I document the military history of space innovation."



      *Comment*

      Marco Langbroek * 6 days
      ago<http://www.psmag.com/culture/spying-on-the-spooks-44780/#comment-624853738>

      - <http://www.psmag.com/culture/spying-on-the-spooks-44780/>

      <http://www.psmag.com/culture/spying-on-the-spooks-44780/>

      A small correction: though I did discover asteroids, I didn't discover the
      one named after me. That one (183294 Langbroek) was discovered by Stefan
      K├╝rti on imagery from the NEAT Palomar survey.
      Also, a very active segment of the amateurs involved is located in the UK
      and basically the heritage of the UK's former professional tracking
      service. Observers like Russell Eberst in Edinburgh are among the most
      prolific trackers and active since the early 1960-ies. Apart from
      visual/optical trackers, there is also a small but active group of radio
      trackers (listening to satellite signals), largely the heritage of the
      former British Kettering group. Countries with active trackers include the
      UK, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Netherlands, Belgium, France,
      Germany, Italy, Sweden and Russia, amongst others.
      The true number of "classified" objects we track is actually close to 300,
      but that figure includes spent rocket boosters as well as payloads.
      - Marco Langbroek



      --
      The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear--fear of the unknown,
      the complex, the inexplicable.
      ~ HL Mencken

      Hesitation increases in relation to risk in equal proportion to age.
      ~ Ernest Hemingway

      *Pun of the Week*
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      ---
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