Photographing Near-space Objects We’re Not Supposed To Know About

[Thierry Legault] doesn’t just look up at the stars, the uses a motorized telescope base of his own making to track and photograph secret objects orbiting the earth. What do we mean by ‘secret objects’? Spy stuff, of course.

Last month he captured some video of the X-37B, an unmanned and secretive reusable spacecraft (read: spy shuttle) which is operated by the United States Air Force. That was back on the 21st of May but a few nights later he also saw the USA-186, an optical reconnaissance (Keyhole) satellite.

After trying to cope with manual tracking using the RC control seen above [Thierry] set out to upgrade his equipment. He ended up designing his own software package (and then released it as freeware) to automatically track the trajectory of orbiting objects. He uses a second telescope to locate the object, then dials it in with the bigger telescope. Once in frame, the software takes over.

[Wired via Dangerous Prototypes]

57 thoughts on “Photographing Near-space Objects We’re Not Supposed To Know About

  1. Alright, this kind of ticks me off. I live 7 miles from Vandenberg AFB and spent 4 years active in the navy as a spook… these things are classified for a reason. This guy thinks it’s cool to tell the world where the orbital surveillance tools are. If the bad guy knows when the birds are overhead they can conceal what they’re doing. If you can’t get your intel from the air, you have to do it from the ground which means putting more people in harms way. Not cool in my book. Why not stick with filming the ISS? Do you really need to broadcast to the world the location, heading, speed and where in its elliptical orbit reconnaissance satellites are? That’s kind of like talking about ship movements in WWII if you ask me.

    1. Bullshit. The laws of orbital dynamics are not secret, they never have been secret, and they can’t be kept secret. ANYONE can track a satellite and predict its motion. People have been doing this sort of thing as a hobby since the days of Sputnik.

      1. Glenn’s post exemplifies why I’m annoyed. He doesn’t get it, either. It doesn’t matter if spies are from hostile enemy nations. ANYONE can track a satellite, whether for good or for bad. It’s not a question of wanting to keep the laws of orbital dynamics secret; they aren’t secret, and haven’t been for centuries.

    2. you want a blind trust. real researcher or inventors don’t trust no one, a fear mongering like you, we should assume your intention are good. ahahahaha really. is that how it works.???? clown !!

  2. @schmidtn

    In this age I would always assume there is a spy satellite looking at me if I was a enemy, terrorist, ect.

    If this guy can do it I will assume other nations can do it as well and probably have done it already. It is silly to think that this was the first time someone tried to “look” for spy satellites.

  3. @schmidtn there is no point in concealing the info either… if one backyard astronomer can spot these and figure out their obits, another one can.
    Thinking that now one knows where your satellite is, just because you haven’t told anyone is incredibly short-sighted.

  4. Oh boy here we go. A self proclaimed spook claiming terrorists, China and whatever never done this before. There is a reason why terrorists use couriers instead of using phones. They always assume someone might be watching and/or listening in.

    If you want to track spy satellites you just have to go to and select your terrorist nest on a map. Then enjoy finding out info like which type of satellite is passing over you, its mass, launch date, country of origin etc.

  5. If our military doesn’t expect people are doing shit like this already, and have been for years, every single person in that branch of the service ought to lose their jobs. I’m not joking, and I’m not exaggerating. If a single guy can hack together something to do this just for the hell of it, you can be damn sure that rival nations have been doing the exact same thing for many, many years. I’m sure the US government has been as well…

    What happened to the days when the spooks were so secure and confident that, for example, the NSA worked to help _improve_ commercial cryptography?

  6. @schmidtn:

    I’m with everyone else here: if the USA thinks that not telling everyone where their spy satellites are will keep the Bad Guys from knowing, they’re mistaken.

    I’m sure that those who would be interested in concealing stuff from spy satellites have a much better idea about where they are and how/when to hide from them than any amateur astronomers. It would be stupidly short-sighted to assume otherwise.

    This is just another cold war: they know we can see them, and we know that they know. Not that that makes it pointless to have these things up there, but I seriously doubt that what this guy does puts any lives in danger, friend or foe.

  7. To the supposed “spook”… if you actually were a spook, you’d not be so naive as to think that the orbit of these satellites are actually secret. They’re in low Earth orbit, and they can all be seen from the ground by anyone who’s observant. If some guy in his yard can do it with a pretty ordinary commercially available amateur telescope, it follows that countries all over the world have already done it.

    trdr: schmidtn is a dope.

  8. I think it’s cool that he was able to do this, but kinda wish he wasn’t making it easy for bad guys either.
    On the other hand, with the licensing key it may be able to keep track of who and where it is being used. Or it could be a “fake” meant to draw them out.
    Spooky :-/

  9. Actually…there is one case in which this kind of thing could legitimately harm the spooks — which is, if they are spying on a population that, as a whole, doesn’t have the sophistication to detect these things. But that means they aren’t looking for nukes, WMDs, arms buildups, etc. The only thing I can think of that would possibly be hurt by this is if they’re using these things to spy on Americans, to combat dissent and “civil unrest” and such. In which case, this guy is doing a good thing, and is doing more to actually defend freedom than the spooks.

    So yea, at the very least he’s not hurting anything. Depending on what he finds, he could be doing a great service to our nation.

  10. What I find pretty incredible is that there’s a constellation of Hubble-alikes pointing the wrong way (down). And that’s only counting the US’s 70’s era spy gear. Presumably the Soviets would have matched them like for like and the French might have had an equivalent too.

    Just imagine the sort of advances that could have been made if that hardware had been turned over to science all these years.

  11. @Joe

    No they shouldn’t. There’s plenty of people IN OUR OWN FUCKING COUNTRY that need help first. We’ve got homeless EVERYWHERE with no food or water of their own but that’s ok, let’s send it to the poor people in XYZ country that just had an earthquake. Too bad we can’t take care of our own as good as we take care of everyone else’s.

    Billions to this country, hundreds of thousands to that. But nothing to our own people. Fuck the rest let’s take care of our own people first.

  12. @schmidtn – Can you BELIEVE that some people photograph the Pentagon building!? Even some NEWS agencies have photographed it and GIVEN OUT ITS ADDRESS!!!! Talk about a breach of national security.

    Pfft. I’m guessing the “Former” in your supposed title of “Former Spook” is because of the dim-witted mentality behind comments like the one you posted.

    It’s frickin’ light entering your eyeballs. You can’t tell someone not to look at an object. People are going to look. Even the terrorists.

  13. @schmidtn – Hey if you have somthing flying through the sky its pretty damned hard to “hide”, and if some guy with a telescope can find it don’t you think that a government with far more resources knows its there, if whoever launches satellites wants to “hide” them let them devlope cloaking technology!

    Anyway, this is very cool, when you check out the link go to his home page, he has video of the shuttle docking with the space station, very nice.

  14. @schmidtn — I don’t see anywhere in the article or the software where Mr. Legault publishes the Keplerian elements for the objects he is tracking. While I do know that they are available if you look hard enough (and that is indeed a problem for national security operations), Mr. Legault is not deserving of the grief you are heaping on him, but instead is probably performing a service to his country.

    Besides, if you were at Vandy in the old days (before they put the domes over the sat dishes), then you’d know that all anybody would have to have to calculate the Keplerians of any bird (known or otherwise) would be a good set of binoculars and a protractor.

  15. @Everyone != “schmidtn”
    Does anyone feel like they just got trolled? Just curious.

    Very neat hack – I live in the mountains and think our clear view might make this a great hobby to take up.

  16. @schmidtn I understand what you are saying but this is an off the self telescope, pc, camera, using publicly available data. I have gone to many astronomy events and you could look up and see satellites with the naked eye. That is the problem with spysats. They are scheduled by god and Kepler. The really bad guys know where they are. as well. For sigint birds it isn’t a problem but for photoint birds it can be. so this is harmless. To the “America shouldn’t be spying children. Well that just isn’t the real world and those satellites are used for keeping the peace! that is how both sides monitor compliance with arms treaties which I am sure you think are good things to have. There was story about a museum that moved an B52 insides to repaint it. They actually got a vist from a group of russians just to make sure that is what happened. Same with pictures of the US chopping up b52s or blowing up old silos. So get over it.

  17. I wonder how the camera he used differs from a good DSLR? Probably much more sensitive sensor, but obviously very low resolution. But on the other hand, modern DSLRs have sensitivities up to ISO 25600 (with huge amount of noise though). DSLRs also have much larger sensor, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not in astrophotography.

  18. This reminds me of a doc I watch on Nat Geo recently. Back in the 60’s we knew exactly when Soviet IR sat’s would go over the desert of Area 51. If we hid the plan, the IR signature of cooler desert under the plane would still give away the shape of the bird. So, we used tarps to make fictitious cooler shapes in the surrounding desert to throw the Soviets for a loop.

    Tracking these sat’s has been done for over have a century folks!

  19. @schmidtn, you’re reaction shows a total lack of understanding of the world we live in. Before you jump on someone for what you have likened to treason, gather some basic understanding of what is and is not secret in this day and age.

    @Ken, love the “!=”. I doubt that schmidtn is a troll though, just some poor misguided individual who’s reaction to something that vaguely threatens him is to accuse another person of treason.

  20. What he has published does not seem to be software to control his mount, or do any tracking – its just software to control and take a series of images from high end “Astro” imaging CCD’s (which are more capable of doing “real” scientific work than a DSLR) – i didnt see much in the way of guidance systems, etc, but then again – with any reasonable telescope mount, theres no need.

    So everybody going on about how its treason and such for or against is demonstrably daft.

    Also, orbital elements for all this stuff is published, mainly because somebody is going to get their ass sued off if your satellite hits some billion dollar private research sat, or some other country’s spy sat.

    Sometimes they will change orbit on a sat and not tell anybody (rare, fuel is expensive) for a few days but the orbital elements are usually updated pretty quickly.
    (norad isn’t the only game in town)

  22. @avrpunk

    The Russians had 10 times the amount of spy satellites pointed at the U.S. than the U.S. had pointed at the Soviet Union.

    I don’t remember anyone protesting this…

    BTW, those people with the French accents poking around Boeing are not tourists.

  23. @schmidtn The ‘bad guys’ already know where they are, they put them in orbit in the first place..

    As for the concept of tracking them manually with a RC, that’s amusing, it’s like a real-life game.

  24. I wasn’t worried about other countries knowing this kind of info. Other countries put up their own satellites and have them sit right behind our satellites to see and hear what ours do. Everyone does that. I’m looking at the GWOT. Pretty sure Jihad Johnny isn’t sitting in the the hills of Afghanipak with a telescope and laptop tracking US birds.
    Once they know how we find them, they change their SOPs and we have to do it another way. The most popular way the military does that is more boots on the ground which I would like to see avoided.

  25. Funny how americans whine about bad guys, when in fact the united states regularly spy on europe and the rest of the world. Even more amusing how americans whine about a citizen of the european union publishing perfectly legal stuff.

    Lolcat approves

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