Spying on the Spooks
- *20120820-Spying on the Spooks*
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
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
Langbroek, for example, earns his livelihood digging into the earth, not
looking up at the heavens. He's an
studies Neanderthal camp sites in order to understand how they organized
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
, linked the speedy detection of a swarm of spooky new
by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO, to Langbroek's
While the images and movies Langbroek posts on his blog can be
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
6 <http://www.satobs.org/noss.html> from Vandenberg Air Force Base in
"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."
Marco Langbroek * 6 days
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
Kürti 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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