The skies have stories to tell. Some of the stories make for interesting puzzles, particularly sightings of previously unseen objects in earth orbit. My friend Ted Molczan is part of a small but dedicated group of private citizens who track satellites, with a special focus on unannounced/secret satellite launches. 2011 has already been an interesting year for the group, who post their findings at the SeeSat-L website (satobs.org) and others. Ted presented compelling evidence that he had spotted a possible Prowler satellite that may have been secretly launched in 1990 on space shuttle launch STS 38. Today, Greg Roberts of their group found the USAF's X-37B OTV 2-1 spaceplane, launched into a secret orbit on Saturday. Ted was kind enough to share his philosophy, techniques, and consumer-grade equipment, all of which is easily available for interested citizens wishing to get involved.
Do you consider yourself a government transparency activist?
Ted: "I see myself as a hobbyist who enjoys solving technical puzzles that help to increase public knowledge of space flight, and improve the transparency of activities taking place in Earth orbit."
How do you respond to your critics within government intelligence agencies?
Ted:"The most common criticism is that by publishing the orbits of intelligence gathering satellites, we may enable adversaries of the U.S.A. and its allies to conceal their activities, by scheduling them to avoid periods when the satellites are overhead. Since our informal little group uses very simple equipment and methods to find and track nearly all of the more than 300 objects currently in secret orbit - launched by France, Germany, Israel, Japan and the U.S.A. - it seems reasonable to conclude that given sufficient motivation, even the poorest nation could accomplish at least as much. Moreover, at least a few nations have the means to conduct far more sophisticated space surveillance. Therefore, it appears that the secrecy of orbits depends entirely on the cooperation of adversaries, in which case they cannot practically be considered secret, and to pretend otherwise is a potentially dangerous self-deception."
In what ways do you consider your work valuable to other citizens?
Ted: "Our small contribution to public knowledge, potentially enables citizens to make more informed decisions regarding the activities that their governments conduct in space on their behalf."
How did you get started tracking satellites?
Ted: "I was fascinated by the start of space exploration when I was growing up in the 1960s. Television coverage was very extensive, especially of piloted missions, but seeing satellites from my own backyard made it seem more personal and more tangible."
Ted: "I track objects and measure their positions relative known stars with 25 X 100 binoculars, mounted on a tripod with fluid pan head. I make timings using a stopwatch with a 200 split time memory, which I manually synchronize to a high precision time signal."
What would be on your wish list of equipment?
Ted: "I would like to replace the stopwatch with a device of similar size, operation and precision, but which records absolute time instead of relative time, to eliminate the need to synchronize with a time signal. I have never found anything like that for sale."
What is the climate of collaboration with other citizen satellite observers?
Ted: "There has long been excellent collaboration among the small worldwide group of satellite observers. Our group is highly informal; we have no name and no leader. It is no one's responsibility to do anything, yet we track nearly all of the objects currently in secret orbit. Statistics compiled in 2008, revealed that twenty observers located in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA, produced more than 20,000 observations annually."
Your most recent white papers at satobs.org were about a possible Prowler satellite that may have been secretly launched in 1990 on STS 38. Can you describe the process and information you used to come to that conclusion?
Ted: "The unknown object I suspect is Prowler was one of a small number left over after researchers had identified the current orbit of each of the more than 150 objects acknowledged to have been placed in secret geosynchronous orbit. It had been discovered in 1998 by fellow hobbyists Ed Cannon and Mike McCants, of Austin, Texas, who reported optical characteristics much more typical of a payload than a rocket body or debris. Information from a trusted source, that Prowler was built on the common HS-376 satellite bus, enabled testing the hypothesis that the unknown object was Prowler, by comparing its brightness with known HS-376 satellites, which revealed a striking similarity.
Analysis of the object's orbit reveals a strong correlation with the STS 38 shuttle mission, as well as the constellation of Soviet geosynchronous satellites at the time, which Prowler reportedly was designed to surreptitiously inspect at close range. That its present orbit librates (oscillates about a given longitude, instead of drifting all the way around the planet) makes it statistically highly probable that the object is a satellite, and not a rocket body or debris.
Prowler had reportedly been designed to be optically stealthy when operational, but that capability would have been lost upon decommissioning, which would have complicated its disposal. The Prowler suspect appears to have been decommissioned by the mid-1990s, and its orbit shows signs of having been designed to avoid detection by Russia, by limiting the range of longitude over which it librates to a portion of the western hemisphere out of sight of space surveillance stations on Russian territory.
Librating orbits are frowned upon for satellite disposal, because they remain close to the altitude of operational satellites, creating a collision hazard that lasts for many thousands years, at least. The Prowler suspect's librating orbit appears to have been designed to mitigate this problem, by making it slightly eccentric, such that over the long term its presence in the most critical zone would be reduced to about one percent of the time.
I believe that I have presented a strong circumstantial case that the unknown object is Prowler, but since its existence remains unproven, there is room for doubt. In an effort to test the veracity of the Prowler story, I made a retrospective analysis of the opportunity for STS 38 to have launched Prowler. I found that the shuttle could easily have launched the combined mass of both Prowler and the one satellite STS 38 was known to have launched, and accommodated both within its payload bay. The orbital and observational history of STS 38 reveals the time of both payload deployments, and narrows the time of their manoeuvres to GEO to a roughly half day period.
Prowler was at risk of detection by the Soviet Union's space surveillance and signals intelligence (SIGINT) systems, from deployment until arrival at its initial location in GEO. Taking into account likely detection avoidance measures narrows the time of its manoeuvre to GEO, to three revolutions. Evidence of deception consistent with providing cover for Prowler is found in the shuttle's nonstandard payload separation manoeuvres after both satellite deployments, and the apparent timing of Prowler's deployment to avoid detection by the Soviet SIGINT facility at Lourdes, Cuba."
Your group announced today that Greg Roberts has found the USAF's X-37B OTV 2-1 spaceplane that was launched into a secret orbit on Saturday. Can you give some background on the new find?
Ted: "The USAF has procured two X-37B space planes, which are small, experimental, unpiloted, shuttle-like vehicles. The two spacecraft are called OTV (Orbital Test Vehicle) 1 and 2. OTV 1 was launched first, in April 2010. Our group discovered it several weeks later, and due to a sort of a fluke, the NYT broke the story as an exclusive. As you can imagine, that resulted in huge worldwide news media interest, that in my opinion far exceeded the importance of either X-37B or our discovery of it.
OTV 1 landed successfully in December, and now its sister, OTV 2, is on its maiden voyage - it was launched on Sunday. Greg Roberts, who was one of the co-discoverers of OTV 1, found OTV 2 this morning, and we now know its approximate orbit, which we made public. [ here -aj]
What has been the observation you are most proud of to date?
Ted: "I take the greatest pleasure in the discovery of AFP-731 in October 1990, by Russell Eberst, of Scotland, and Daniel Karcher and Pierre Neirinck, of France. It had been launched on a secret shuttle mission in February 1990, and suddenly disappeared a week later, leaving behind only debris. It had been thought to have exploded, but my colleagues found it apparently intact, in an orbit of higher altitude and inclination than the one into which the shuttle had placed it. Years later, the satellite's true identity and mission leaked out: it was a stealthy imagery intelligence satellite called Misty, designed to be more or less invisible at visual and radar wavelengths. The optical stealth mechanism is believed to have been a mirror that could be accurately aimed to reflect the blackness of space toward detection threats. Our hobby was not well known at the time, so it is unlikely that we were among the identified detection threats, which explains why Misty was about as bright as the stars of the Big Dipper when my colleagues spotted it by chance, on different nights over a several day period.
If someone wanted to get involved in citizen satellite tracking, what basic equipment, tips, and location do you recommend for optimal results?
Ted: "Equipment ranges from binoculars and stopwatch, to telescopic, computer driven still or video CCD cameras. Computer software is available to assist in data reduction. Most of us observe from urban locations. The basics of making the precise positional observations required to maintain accurate orbital elements of satellites are explained here:
Several observers track satellites through the analysis of the Doppler shift of their radio transmissions, which has proven to be a very useful technique.
We share our observations via the SeeSat-L mailing list, which is devoted to all aspects of visual satellite observation. Subscription information and the public archive are available here:
Thanks for sharing your work with everyone, Ted!
Image: Ted's tripod-mounted binoculars on the balcony of his Toronto home. Used with permission.
Andrea James is a writer, director, producer and activist based in Los Angeles. Her work often focuses on consumer activism, the free culture movement, exogenous mysticism, humor, and LGBT rights.