Satellite spotters often learn too much for government’s comfort
When the government announced last month that a top-secret spy satellite would, in the next few months, come falling out of the sky, officials said that there was little risk to people because satellites fall out of orbit fairly frequently and much of the planet is covered by oceans.
But they said precious little about the satellite itself.
Such information came instead from Ted Molczan, a hobbyist who tracks satellites from his apartment balcony in Toronto, and fellow satellite spotters around the world. They have grudgingly become accustomed to being seen as “propeller-headed geeks” who “poke their finger in the eye” of the government’s satellite spymasters, Molczan said, taking no offense. “I have a sense of humor,” he said.
Molczan, a private energy-conservation consultant, is the best known of the satellite spotters who, needing little more than a pair of binoculars, a stopwatch and star charts, uncover some of the deepest of the government’s expensive secrets and share them on the Internet.
Thousands of people form the spotter community. Many look for historical relics of the early space age, working from publicly available orbital information. Others watch for phenomena like the distinctive flare of sunlight glinting off bright solar panels of some telephone satellites. Still others are drawn to the secretive world of spy satellites, with about a dozen hobbyists who do most of the observing, Molczan said.
In the case of the mysterious satellite that is about to plunge back to Earth, Molczan had an early sense of which one it was, identifying it as USA-193, which gave out shortly after reaching space in December 2006. It is said to have been built by Lockheed Martin and operated by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office.
Another hobbyist, John Locker of England, posted photos of the satellite on a Web site, galaxypix.com. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a private group in Alexandria, Virginia, that tracks military and space activities, said the hobbyists exemplified fundamental principles of openness and of the power of technology to change the game.
“It has been an important demystification of these things,” Pike said, “because I think there is a tendency on the part of these agencies just to try to pretend that they don’t exist, and that nothing can be known about them.”
But the spotters are also pursuing a thoroughly different pastime, one that calls for long hours outside, freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer, straining to see a moving light in the sky and hoping that a slip of the finger on the stopwatch does not delete an entire night’s work. And for the adept, there is math. Lots of math.
“It’s somewhat time-consuming and tedious,” Molczan said, acknowledging that the very precise and methodical activities might seem, to the uninitiated, “a close approximation to work.”
When a new spy satellite is launched, the hobbyists will collaborate on sightings around the world to determine its orbit, and even guess at its function, sharing their information through the e-mail network SeeSat-L, which can be found via the Web site satobs.org.
From his balcony, or the 32nd-floor roof of his building, Molczan will peer through his binoculars at a point in the sky he expects the satellite to cross, which he locates with star charts. When it appears, he measures the distance it travels across the patch of sky over time, which he can use to calculate factors like speed and direction.
Locker said people like him and Molczan were not, as he put it, “nerdy buffs who lie on our backs and look into the sky and try to undermine governments.” Spotting, he said, is simply a hobby.
“There are people who look at train timetables and go watch trains,” he said. People are drawn to what interests them, he said, and “it’s what draws people to any hobby.”
While recent news coverage has focused on the current satellite’s threat to people when it falls from above, that threat is, statistically, very small. Even when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas five years ago and rained debris over two states, no one on the ground was injured.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, noted that 328 satellites had come down in the past five years without injury to anyone on the ground. While Johndroe declined to divulge much about the current satellite aside from the fact that it carries no nuclear material, he said that the government would take responsibility in the remote chance of damage or injury.