DIY astrophotographers track spy satellites

Amateur astrophotographers are hacking together sophisticated telescopes enabling them to track and document orbiting satellites, including spy satellites. For example, they recently recorded the National Reconnaissance Agency's not-so-secret Lacrosse 5 sat doing a "disappearance trick" in which it periodically vanishes for several seconds. Seen here is astrophotographer Emmanuel Rietsch's photo of the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked at the International Space Station in 2010. From Scientific American:

 Media Inline Amateur-Astronomers-Spy-Satellite 1 High-end consumer telescopes resting on motorized, programmable mounts that match Earth's rotational speed to keep the scope pointed at stars and planets as they cross the sky have long been standard equipment. (Astrophotographer Emmanuel) Rietsch's innovation, developed at the request of Thierry Legault, a friend and fellow French astrophotographer, is hardware and software that pushes the mount to operate many times faster in order to keep up with comparatively speedy satellites. Legault and Rietsch use Prism and Adobe Premiere to improve the clarity of the images they capture and VirtualDub to convert the images for use online.

With the hacked-together system, Legault produced "the first useful images I have seen" of last year's doomed Russian Mars probe Phobos–Grunt as well as spy satellites, veteran backyard astronomer Ted Molczan says. Together, Reitsch and Legault "have advanced the amateur state of the art by combining high-quality optics and cameras with an automated tracking system built by Rietsch," adds Molczan, himself well-known for observing man-made satellites in orbit and posting information about them to the Web. This includes the American military satellite USA 193, which malfunctioned after little more than a year and was shot down by a U.S. warship in 2008.

"Spy-High: Amateur Astronomers Scour the Sky for Government Secrets" (SciAm)

Thierry Legault's Spy Satellites page

Emmanuel Rietsch's ManuAstro page


  1. “Apparently alone among all of the U.S.’s space spy fleet, the Lacrosse 5 periodically disappears from view for seconds before reappearing. It is the opposite of a flare, in which a satellite reflects a brief glint of sunlight. A much-discussed murky video shows a glowing, distinctly oblong object, said to be Lacrosse 5, quickly dimming before brightening again. The discovery was a sensation in satellite-hunting circles, inspiring some of the conspiratorially minded peepers to wonder if the U.S. could actually hide orbiting equipment from them.”

    Hmm, something in space between the sun and earth, briefly reflects the sun at a certain point, MUST be evidence of a conspiracy! …

    Got my kids a programmable scope for festivus last year, I can’t wait to see the small white dots be bigger white dots! :) 

    1. Hmm, something in space between the sun and earth, briefly reflects the sun at a certain point, MUST be evidence of a conspiracy! …

      It’s not the angle of the sun.  It appears to have some sort of intermittent stealth technology.  It could be as simple as a large black sheet that is always supposed to face the Earth, but didn’t quite settle in properly.

    2.  “I can’t wait to see the small white dots be bigger white dots! :) ”

      Colimate your telescope. Get the $20 tool. do this before every viewing. You’ll understand your telescope better, and have better imagery.

      Oh, and glue a piece of sink pipe to the guts of an old webcam – best astrophotography cam next to a DSLR.

      1. So I checked up on what “collimate” is all about. I’m not sure how much adjusting I can do with the one I have and I realize this is pretty much a half step up from a cardboard tube with a piece of glass at either end… 

        I haven’t yet calibrated it to punch in coordinates for other bodies, but we have checked out the moon on a few occasions. I just positioned it manually for that big target. I’m just glad the short people understood why the moon seemed to move away so fast when looking through the eyepiece. Proud parent moment lol.

        It’s funny you bring up the webcam thing because before I even got the scope I was looking at this because I have an extra one and wanted to try it out!

        From the solar test it looks like I might actually be able to reproduce some of the discoveries covered in the main post. I just need to figure out the right time to point and shoot ;)

  2. I like for getting times and dates of satellite flyovers.  They have nifty little printable sky charts that you point north, and hold up at a certain time, to see where a naked-eye visible satellite will be flying over. 

  3. Not to nitpick, but I believe you’re referring to the National Reconnaissance Office, although– hypothetically speaking– the initials NRA would sow a great deal of confusion, especially upon the great hordes of unwashed google masses.

  4. Props to anyone using VirtualDub, a nice piece of software (even if it is long in the tooth at this point).  Now get them working with Avisynth and they could probably automate much of the workflow…

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