Hobbyists Track Down Spies in Sky
Glowing Satellites Are Not So Covert
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 20, 1999; Page A01
As Operation Desert Fox unfolded in December and the Pentagon released reconnaissance photographs taken from space of destroyed Iraqi targets, retired CIA scientist Allen Thomson sat at his home computer in El Paso and produced a schedule of classified U.S. satellite overpasses of Baghdad from the hour the bombing began.
Thomson was not trying to alert Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but to underscore a point he has been making for years about supersecret U.S. spy satellites: They aren't so secret anymore.
A global network of satellite watchers post on the Internet the orbital paths and schedules of the five known U.S. spy imagery satellites. Anyone with a personal computer and a basic understanding of astronomy, from foreign intelligence agencies to weekend hobbyists, can calculate when these billion-dollar birds will pass over any point on Earth, and observe them as points of light hundreds of miles high in the night sky.
"Here it comes! Oh, it's bright!" Curtis Roelle, a computer engineer, exclaimed one recent night as a secret, radar-imaging Lacrosse satellite raced at thousands of miles per hour through the heavens above his home in Howard County. Roelle charted the satellite's course using the same software and Internet data Thomson used to track U.S. spy satellites over Baghdad.
"Now, it's passing through Gemini," Roelle said, peering through binoculars as the Lacrosse, the size of a school bus, caught the sun's rays on its protective golden blanket, making it visible in the darkness below. "It's kind of glowing. When we first spotted it, it was 978 kilometers [606 miles] away. And by the time it reaches the horizon, it will be 3,000 kilometers [1,860 miles] away."
There are about 8,000 satellites in space routinely tracked by the U.S. Space Command, including 200 belonging to the U.S. military and intelligence community that are worth an estimated $100 billion. But only several are thought to be spy satellites transmitting visual images to Fort Belvoir, Va., outside Washington, in near real time.
When the U.S. government stopped publishing orbital data of those spy satellites back in 1983, Thomson said, a handful of amateur satellite watchers, armed with nothing more than celestial charts, stopwatches and binoculars, became more determined than ever.
"People said, 'If the U.S. is not going to tell us where its secret satellites are, by God, we'll go out and find them,' " Thomson said. "And by God, they did."
Six years ago, Thomson wrote a paper for general publication arguing that these easily tracked spy satellites could be fooled by simple concealment techniques -- such as hiding equipment during the hours that satellites are overhead -- and would be vulnerable someday to anti-satellite weapons. At the time, the agency responsible for operating spy satellites, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), tried to block the paper's publication.
Today, however, the NRO loudly endorses Thomson's argument. It is designing a new generation of smaller and cheaper satellites that a decade from now should be more difficult to track while providing nearly constant, real-time imagery of any target on Earth. One proposed system, known as Discoverer II, could involve as many as 48 radar-imaging satellites monitoring selected targets nearly continuously, according to a recent Pentagon document.
In addition to following U.S. satellites, enthusiasts can track spy satellites from Russia, China, France and Israel -- the other countries that control overhead imagery from space -- using orbital data published by the U.S. government.
According to Thomson's recent calculation of spy satellite overpasses of Baghdad, classified Keyhole and Lacrosse satellites zoomed over Baghdad 19 times in the 18 hours after the first allied missile strike on Dec. 16 (EST).
But quality overpasses, his analysis showed, were few and far between.
Thomson found that a Keyhole satellite with infrared imaging capabilities passed almost directly over Baghdad at an elevation of 872 kilometers (541 miles) just after midnight local time on Dec. 17, less than an hour before the attack began. A radar-imaging Lacrosse satellite, which can produce images at night and through cloud cover, passed over Baghdad at an altitude of 673 kilometers (417 miles) at 4:38 the following morning at an angle of 86 degrees, almost directly overhead.
Thomson produced similar calculations in May for spy satellite overpasses of the northern Indian desert state of Rajasthan, where U.S. intelligence analysts failed to detect signs of Indian nuclear tests. Indian scientists made their own calculations, making it easy to hide from the U.S. spacecraft the equipment and other evidence of preparations for the tests, one Indian expert said shortly after the tests took place.
Analysts have theorized that India could have used its own imaging satellite to study ways of concealing activity around the test site from the satellites of other nations.
Rick Oborn, the NRO spokesman, acknowledged that U.S. satellites are the subject of concealment schemes. "Some people do try to hide things as part of the age-old intelligence cat-and-mouse game. However, we do our best to complicate those efforts and gather data for our customers," he said.
India's reconnaissance satellite flew over Baghdad in the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox, taking pictures of Iraq's badly damaged military intelligence headquarters. The photos were released by Space Imaging, a commercial satellite imaging firm based in Thornton, Colo., which has marketing rights for the Indian satellite photos.
The commercial images were not nearly as detailed as those released by the Pentagon. The Indian satellite imagery has 5-meter resolution, meaning objects the size of a van can be distinguished. The best U.S. spy imagery is thought to have 10-centimeter resolution, meaning U.S. photo interpreters not only can see a van but also can tell whether it has license plates.
Nonetheless, the existence of Indian imagery of Baghdad shows how competition is mounting in space. Space Imaging, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., plans to launch a satellite this year capable of resolving objects 1 meter wide, technology second only to what the companies build for U.S. intelligence agencies.
John C. Baker, a senior staff scientist at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, called the release of the Indian photographs a "significant development," representing the first time commercial imagery has been made available to confirm bomb damage assessment derived from Pentagon imagery.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are turning to a booming industry in commercial imagery to help fill gaps in target coverage and to produce highly detailed battle maps still lacking for much of the globe. The National Imagery and Mapping Agency recently awarded its first multimillion-dollar contract for commercial satellite imagery to three private companies, Orbital Sciences Corp., Space Imaging and Earthwatch Inc. All three are scheduled to launch high-resolution commercial imaging satellites this year.
U.S. military officials declined to say whether the photos they released at the Pentagon came from satellites, U-2 spy planes or unmanned aerial vehicles. But John Pike, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said there are strong indications the imagery came from satellites.
If so, he said, the release of those photos might mark the beginning of a new, more open policy toward publication of satellite imagery. Pike said it was only the second time he has seen the government make satellite imagery public. The first time, he said, was last year, when the Pentagon released overhead imagery of targets in Afghanistan and Sudan linked to Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden that had been struck by U.S. cruise missiles.
"One gathers this is going to be a normal practice," Pike said. "And I can see why they're doing it, because the imagery was very convincing, there was no doubt about it."
Seeing a Satellite
A satellite in low Earth orbit will be visible if:
1) The observer has a dark or twilight sky.
2) The satellite is above the observer's horizon.
3) The satellite is illuminated by the sun.
A satellite looks like a slowly moving star. The reflected sunlight from a satellite will remain relatively constant, unlike an airplane, which has blinking lights.
NOTE: Drawing not to scale
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