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:
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
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