Spying on the Spooks

Armed with binoculars and a standard camera, a different sort of birdwatcher keeps tabs on the world's spy satellites.
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Armed with binoculars and a standard camera, a different sort of birdwatcher keeps tabs on the world's spy satellites.

From the courtyard of his house in the center of his Dutch hometown of Leiden, Marco Langbroek spies on American military satellites, and makes no secret about it. He blogs about it.

While thousands of amateurs track the world’s orbiters, Langbroek is part of a small subset— about 20 loosely affiliated members from around the world: Russia, Canada, South Africa, Texas, he says—focused on covert launches. They’re generally not spies themselves, just enthusiastic fanboys.

Langbroek, for example, earns his livelihood digging into the earth, not looking up at the heavens. He’s an archaeologist who studies Neanderthal camp sites in order to understand how they organized their communities.

Locating celestial spyware requires no special gear, just a few over-the-counter tools. That means a good pair of bird-watching binoculars, a tripod, and a first-year course in calculus. “I use a 50 millimeter lens on my camera,” Langbroek says.

The hobby traces its origins to Pierre Neirinck, a Frenchman the British recruited to track satellites in the 1970s.

“In the early days,” Langbroek says, “before the Western powers had established a large tracking network, they enlisted the help of amateur observers. But by the late 70s they no longer needed us, and the hobby went in decline.” As Desmond King-Hele describes the British optical tracking effort then in his book “A Tapestry of Orbits”: “… The staff melted away, being reduced by 1979 to just one (or perhaps two – Pierre by day and Pierre by night).”

Then, in 1984 the U.S. stopped publishing information about “classified” orbiters. The few remaining amateurs took that as a challenge, and “our hobby in its modern incarnation was born.” “We track all classified satellites—Japanese, German, Israeli, French, Indian, about 100,” Langbroek says.

While Langbroek himself is a good enough hobbyist to have discovered new asteroids (the International Astronomical Union has named one his discoveries after him, among spy satellite observers he considers himself a relative “newbie”, having started in 2005. But by meticulously detailing and photographing the passage of spy satellites, Langbroek is one of the rising stars in this community that’s still coordinated, at age 86, by Neirinck.

Recently, for example, the non-profit, non-partisan Federation of American Scientists, which rides check on government secrecy, linked the speedy detection of a swarm of spooky new satellites launched by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO, to Langbroek’s blog.

While the images and movies Langbroek posts on his blog can be fascinating, his descriptions can be rough slogging for readers unaccustomed to rocket jargon: “This is the third launch (assuming that the failed USA 193 was the first) in the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) series. It received the SSC catalogue entry #38109, international Cospar launch code 2012-014A.”

And what you see in space, Langbroek notes, is really only a hint of what makes these satellites intriguing. The real secrets of these orbiters are the information they gather, and you can’t observe those with binoculars. “If I can see the satellites, so can any other interested nation. It’s like trying to park an aircraft carrier under the Golden Gate Bridge, then saying its position is Top Secret. It’s ridiculous.” But he acknowledges that while a giant aircraft carrier leashed to the Golden Gate may be obvious, any secrets inside its hull are closely guarded.

And there are those in the military arena angered by amateurs like Langbroek. Last year, a government journal published a defense contractor’s paper that accused “amateur satellite trackers,” of “aiding terrorists.”

Langbroek replied to such complaints from military industry in an email to Pacific Standard. “We exercise self-restraint. We always consider the potential effects of what we make public. Information considered sensitive remains secret.”

While Langbroek does not appear to represent any threat to this nation’s spy program, he still comes in for scrutiny. “I have noted some 'weird' visits to my weblog in the statistics the site gathers,” Langbroek wrote in an email to Pacific Standard. He says his site has picked up “Internet provider” visits from CIA and other spy agencies, as well as the U.S. senate and the executive office of the U.S. president.

“We're aware of groups of hobbyists that track our satellites, but our mission is classified and we don't comment on them,” says Loretta DeSio, director of the office of corporate communication at the National Reconnaissance Office, She declined to say whether these “hobbyists” information was accurate or whether it created security issues.

Still, blogs like Langbroek’s appear to have strategic value for some. “A few years ago,” he says, “when Israel was bombing Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and it became clear the U.S. provided Israel with timely satellite imagery, someone from Lebanon searched on my blog for information about the satellites’ capabilities.” Langbroek believes the satellites are capable of seeing details as small as four inches.

Governments are not always accountable for their satellites, Langbroek says. He warned, for instance, that a huge Japanese spy satellite was tumbling from orbit. The only word from Japan was that “there is no risk.” When the big bird came to a fiery landing in the Pacific on July 26, the world took notice. “Just a little change in solar activity would have meant it could have come down in northwest Europe,” he notes, dumping 1.2 tons of spacecraft into one of the most populated regions on Earth.

The next secret launch Langbroek and the merry hobbyists await will be September 6 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. “The guessing is that it will be a pair of [U.S. Naval Ocean Surveillance System] satellites,” he says. Flying in pairs in close formation these satellites keep a look out on the high seas for pirates, as well as shipping action in the tense Persian Gulf.

Recently, the NRO offered NASA two of its retired spy satellites to augment its very busy and successful Hubble satellite. Langbroek said the offer was one of the best reasons for tracking these secret moonlets. “When it comes to innovation in space research everyone looks at NASA. But NASA’s only the public face. The other side is the NRO, where in many ways the real experimentation and innovation takes place.”

Langbroek the archeologist sees his work contributing to the history of science by discovering innovations that otherwise might have remained unknown. “I document the military history of space innovation.”