Amateur satellite spotters can track everything government spymasters blast into orbit.
Except the stealth bird codenamed Misty.
By Patrick Radden Keefe
Sometime around dawn on the first day of the 1991 Gulf War, Ted Molczan was woken by a mysterious phone call. Molczan had been up until 3:30 am in his Toronto apartment, riveted by the televised images of Tomahawk missiles raining down on Baghdad, so he was groggy when the phone rang. A male voice with a thick accent said: "I know you're involved in satellite tracking. I'm interested in doing a trade." The caller offered Molczan information on the orbiting patterns of a constellation of eight US satellites. In exchange, he wanted to know the orbits for the CIA's KH-11 "Keyhole" satellites - from space they can discern an object as small as a softball, and they were sending US forces hi-res digital imagery of Iraq and Kuwait.
The man made no apology for the early hour and wouldn't say why he wanted the information. But one thing was clear: He had found the right guy.
Molczan, an energy conservation consultant, was just becoming known for his skill at a most unusual hobby. In his spare time, he likes to take binoculars and a stopwatch onto the balcony of his high-rise apartment and track clandestine US spy satellites. There are thousands of amateur satellite observers active today, but Molczan is a leader of an informal group of 20 or so who specialize in so-called black satellites, the orbits of which are not disclosed, and the existence of which is often classified. Molczan and his band of associates monitor some 140 classified US satellites, like the Lacrosse radar imaging satellites, which can see through cloud cover and darkness and produce photo-quality images of targets on Earth.
The observers, who congregate on a Web site called Heavens-Above and a mailing list called SeeSat-L, have amassed an impressive collection of information and expertise. For two decades, they have played a high tech game of hide-and-seek with the US's National Reconnaissance Office, a secretive satellite agency. By coordinating their efforts, amateur observers in Europe, North America, and South Africa monitor satellites at different phases of their journeys and extrapolate the precise dimensions of their orbits. Astonishingly, despite the hobbyists' modest resources - most observe part-time from their balconies and backyards with equipment available at RadioShack - they are good enough to spot almost anything the NRO, with its estimated $7 billion budget, blasts into space. That, of course, is why the mystery caller wanted to chat.
Molczan told the man that he didn't have current information on KH-11s because most of his fellow satellite spotters were based in the Northern Hemisphere and Keyholes were "out of season" in winter, obscured by Earth's shadow. "I asked, 'Well, who are you?'" Molczan remembers. "He sort of laughed and said, 'Let's just say I'm south of you.'"
The conversation lasted barely three minutes, but Molczan says it still haunts him. It made him begin to think about what would happen if the information collected by those "in the hobby" ever ended up in the wrong hands.
So far that concern hasn't changed the way he works. Fifteen years after that unsettling experience, Molczan and the network have developed an almost zoological catalog of the many secret creatures that streak across the evening sky - and they've posted everything online. But there's one satellite whose information Molczan says he might not disclose. As it happens, it's also the one he cannot find.
Since the early '90s, he has been hunting a new, supersecret breed of satellite that has become a kind of white whale for the observers and a source of considerable controversy on Capitol Hill. Codenamed Misty, it's a multibillion-dollar stealth photoreconnaissance device that took the CIA and the NRO a decade to develop and was designed to be untrackable by Soviet adversaries. It began orbiting Earth in the spring of 1990, when it prompted a high-stakes hunt that obsesses the amateurs to this day.
"It's too overcast to see any satellites tonight," Molczan says. "But look over there." We're standing on the balcony of the bachelor apartment he shares with two cats, Josie and Midnight, looking out over Toronto, 23 stories below. At 52, Molczan is a large man, 6'5'' and fleshy, with long silver-blond hair and bangs in a sharp fringe over his brow. Moving with the exaggerated care of a giant afraid he might break things, he adjusts his Swift 11 x 80 binoculars on their massive tripod so that he can train them over Lake Ontario, which appears swallowed by mist.
"See the TV tower?" he asks, and sure enough, as I peer through the scopes a quartet of white lights blink from the other side of the lake, where before I had seen nothing. "That's Hamilton, where I was born and raised. It's about 30 miles from here."
Molczan is a child of the space age. When Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in April 1961, Molczan's father cut the Russian cosmonaut's picture out of the newspaper and gave it to 7-year-old Ted. "I was this totally square kid," he told me. "The Beatles were around, but they didn't exist for me. My life was Apollo." He converted his parents' rec room into a shrine to the space program, with clippings from Life magazine and a giant map of the moon. Even before Molczan knew the constellations by name, he knew them by sight, and he discerned in the Rorschach of the night sky his own menagerie of shapes and creatures. "But the idea that people were going to go there," he says to me, still a little breathless at the thought, "that was new. I mean, it was something people had dreamed about over the centuries, but here I was, a kid, and it was happening right then."
One evening in the summer of 1968, just after Molczan had flunked his first year of high school, he was standing in his parents' driveway. He saw a brilliant satellite low in the western sky, tracing a north-to-south arc. The object was so vivid that he thought he could recognize it if it passed by again, and he grew determined to "recover it" - work out its orbit and predict its return.
Through a series of crude calculations, Molczan figured out the duration of a single orbit and the number of degrees Earth would rotate during that period. Guessing the longitude of the previous night's pass, he forecasted that the satellite would traverse the sky just east of Hamilton about 15 minutes after sunset that evening. At that exact time, Ted Molczan stepped outside and looked up. There it was, blazing high in the southeast. A satellite observer was born.
US spy satellites photograph targets on the ground, intercept communications, and search for signs of nuclear testing. In the 1960s, Corona satellite images convinced US officials that they had overestimated Russia's progress in the arms race. During the current conflict in Iraq, US satellites have been making hourly sweeps over the region. Traditionally, spy-in-the-sky operations are cloaked in secrecy: Though the US has spent some $200 billion on intelligence satellites during the past four decades, the government didn't even acknowledge the NRO's existence until 1992.
If denying the existence of a major intelligence bureaucracy with thousands of employees commuting each day to an office park near Dulles International Airport seems like a losing proposition, a similar set of challenges besets the NRO's efforts to keep the satellites themselves obscure. For starters, there's the matter of putting them into orbit: The launch of an Atlas rocket or space shuttle from the customary sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base or Kennedy Space Center is a spectacular event, visible for miles around. Details of many of these launches are published well in advance by Aviation Week - or Av Leak, as it's known to the hobbyists.
Furthermore, the average spy satellite is the size of a school bus and blanketed in Mylar or some other shiny thermal material that regulates its temperature. Once in space, it tends to reflect sunlight. "The problem is, space is transparent," says Jeffrey Lewis, a research fellow at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies. "There's no way around that."
Depending on its size, construction, and orbit, a satellite can reflect enough light to make it visible to the unassisted eye. Thus, even as the NRO launched black satellites hoping that Russian radar observation stations would not detect them, those same satellites were occasionally spotted by kids like Ted Molczan, or anyone else who happened to look up at the night sky.
For America, having others know the precise time its eyes will be overhead poses a huge strategic problem. India's nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert in 1998 caught US intelligence unawares because the Indians had ascertained the orbits of US satellites and hid their operations accordingly. In Afghan caves abandoned by al Qaeda, US forces recovered documents detailing the passage of spy satellites. In 1978, a young CIA employee named William Kampiles sold the Soviets a technical manual describing the design and operation of KH-11s - the satellite whose orbital information Molczan's mystery caller sought. Kampiles was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
When Molczan was recovering his first satellite, he had little idea that, an ocean away, a fledgling group of professional and amateur observers in the UK was already monitoring the increasingly busy thoroughfares of space. One of them was British observer Russell Eberst, who worked in the satellite tracking section of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. Thirteen years older than Molczan, he has recorded more data on secret satellites than any other tracker alive.
Once the skies got crowded and the satellites began to cross one another's paths, the US started publishing the orbits of most of its military and intelligence satellites. Eberst and his colleagues monitored those and others for scientific research, trying to evaluate the densities of the upper atmosphere and to refine their understanding of Earth's shape and gravitational field. But in 1983, the US changed the rules.
That June, the Reagan administration stopped revealing most of these orbits, hoping, unsuccessfully it turned out, to hide them from the Soviets. But the decision had a conspicuous unintended consequence: It "unwittingly set a challenge to the amateur network of observers," Eberst says, "to see if they could maintain reliable orbits for these 'secret' objects."
Molczan insists that the hobbyists are driven not by politics but by the technical challenges of observing something hidden. "I respect the right of anyone not to publish the orbital elements for their satellites," he says. "But they have to respect my right to try to figure out what those elements are."
Not long after the US started covering up much of its space-based espionage program, Molczan got in touch with the UK observers; meanwhile, the British government continued a steady shutdown of its satellite prediction service. This left an international fraternity of highly skilled satellite trackers with time on their hands itching to find out what had just been hidden. And with the advent of Internet bulletin boards, far-flung observers could swap notes and post their observations in real time. The game was afoot.
On February 28, 1990, NASA launched the space shuttle Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center, with a top-secret payload known as USA 53. Aviation Week reported the launch, and a posse of amateur observers set out to try to glimpse it, spotting the shuttle and its satellite cargo on each of its final three days in orbit. In Scotland, Russell Eberst saw it, as did a group of observers recruited by Molczan to watch from Alaska and Canada's Yukon and Northwest territories. Aviation Week said that the payload was a large digital-imaging reconnaissance satellite; the observers assumed it was similar to a Keyhole. But when they spotted the satellite itself, they noted that it was unusually bright, giving them their first hint that they were onto something very special.
On March 16, Soviet media reported an explosion associated with USA 53 and said that pieces of debris had been detected in orbit. On several mornings following this news, Molczan stood for hours on the roof of his high-rise, scanning the horizon for the satellite. "I froze my butt off," he recalls. "But I didn't see it."
What the observers did not know is that the shuttle's cargo wasn't just another KH-11. It was a new class of stealth satellite codenamed Misty and designed to orbit undetected. In fact, Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, suggests that the "explosion" may have been a ruse to throw the Russians off the scent and allow the satellite to vanish.
To the observers, the idea that USA 53 could be a stealth satellite was laughable, because it had been so conspicuously bright. But they saw it only briefly after its launch, and it wasn't found again until October, when Eberst noticed a very bright object in an unfamiliar orbit over Edinburgh. He spoke to Pierre Neirinck, an observer in France who had seen a similar unknown entity. Neirinck then checked the path of the mystery object against the orbits of hundreds of nonsecret satellites, but he found no match.
The satellite sleuths have no official organization or meetings, and their revelations are often based on this sort of casual interaction - a phone call or email describing some odd occurrence, the swapping of notes and interpretations. Using their combined observations, Neirinck worked up a preliminary orbit and asked his fellow observers to check it against their lists of objects they had observed but could not identify.
When Molczan went back and compared the mystery orbit to the trajectory of the satellite launched in February, he realized that the unknown object that Eberst and Neirinck had seen was none other than USA 53. The amateurs were eager to get another look, but bad weather prevented observation for the next two days.
By the time the sky cleared up, Misty had vanished again.
If left undisturbed at high altitude, a satellite will continue its orbit for thousands of years. According to Desmond King-Hele, the author of several books on satellite spotting, if nuclear war ever destroyed civilization, "satellites would remain circling a devastated planet, relics of the advanced technology that led to our downfall."
In other words, satellites do not just disappear.
Over the years, the network of observers has kept an eye out for Misty, but none so diligently - perhaps obsessively - as Ted Molczan. Even after Misty "disappeared," Eberst likely spotted it again on three occasions in the late '90s, though it was very faint, even through binoculars. He wasn't sure what the object was; Molczan ID'd it as Misty. Many experts also believe that a satellite launched in 1999, known as USA 144 but unspotted so far, is a second-gen version of Misty.
For the observers, especially Molczan, finding Misty or its successor has taken on an almost mythological significance. In fact, in the 15 years he's been scanning the heavens for it, Molczan and some of his colleagues have developed a theory: Misty isn't just hiding - it's hiding from them.
Molczan's imagination may have gotten the better of him after his long search, but stealth technology of the sort deployed by aircraft and satellites does indeed work by specific targeting: Objects don't become completely invisible; they reorient themselves so they can't be seen from certain vantage points. Misty likely deflects the sun's rays to make itself imperceptible from a particular location on Earth.
"They know where we live," Molczan says excitedly. He believes that when it was originally launched into orbit, the satellite was programmed to be invisible to the Soviets, but the National Reconnaissance Office failed to take the hobbyists into account. Molczan is convinced that after reports of the observers' USA 53 sightings, the satellite was reprogrammed with the coordinates of every area where skilled hobbyists live. It sounds implausible, and he can't prove it, but to Molczan it's the only reasonable explanation.
So why didn't Molczan or Eberst or Neirinck just pack binoculars on a trip to the South Pacific? "The vacation would have to be fairly long," Molczan replies. "Say, 3 to 12 months." Satellites are generally visible only for a few minutes a night, and a trustworthy identification requires multiple rigorous observations. It can't be achieved with data gathered during a week in the sun.
One person who is convinced of Molczan's theory is Allen Thomson, a well-respected former CIA analyst who has followed the observers' work for years. With stealth you "very much have to aim," he says. "Once they realized there were observers in Scotland and Toronto and wherever, they basically reprogrammed."
In late 2004, a fierce closed-door debate on Capitol Hill burst into the open. Several senators announced publicly that they believed Congress was frittering away precious budget dollars on a proposed new version of Misty. At $9.5 billion, it was likely the largest item in the intelligence budget. While being careful not to mention the codename or specific nature of the project, US senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), described the new satellite as "unnecessary, ineffective, overbudget, and too expensive."
Part of the reason for the apparent ineffectiveness, of course, is the skill of the satellite sleuths. Even if the observers do not currently have a bead on Misty, the fact that they have seen it and continue to look for it - and have posted info on pretty much everything else - raises questions about the efficacy and expense of stealth technology in space. "It's not an encouraging data point that these dudes could find the damn thing," observes the University of Maryland's Lewis.
Not surprisingly, the intelligence community isn't happy with the amateur observers. "If we had our druthers, we would prefer that these things not end up on the Internet," says Rick Oborn, an NRO spokesperson. "It's no secret that other countries stop doing what they're doing when the satellites are overhead." Several years ago, then-senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska) went a step further when he suggested that hobbyists who publish spy-sat information online are supporting terrorists.
For a short time after September 11, some hobbyists stopped posting the orbital elements for military satellites. But today the general feeling is that amateur observation is ultimately just that - something anyone could pick up. National governments could do it easily with their sophisticated radar tracking operations. Terrorists could make their own observations with a pair of binoculars and high school math skills.
According to this line of reasoning, the amateurs might even be doing the agencies a favor. "That watchdog element is something to be grateful for as a US taxpayer," says Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, pointing out that if hobbyists can see a spy satellite, the bad guys can too.
If observers do spot Misty 2.0, Molczan wonders whether they should "let the world know we found it" but withhold exact information about its movement. He concedes that the observers will probably go ahead and publish whatever information they gather on Misty or any other spy satellite: "Generally, if we see it, it goes up there." But he likes the idea of withholding the Misty elements as a gesture of good faith, a sign that, despite the stakes, to the hobbyists it's still just a hobby.
"There are people who build ships in bottles," Molczan says with a shrug and a smile. "I have no idea why. But they probably enjoy it."
How to Track a Black BirdStep 1: Start Your Browser
Heavens-Above.com lists orbit patterns for thousands of satellites, including the clandestine ones followed by amateur observers. Enter the name of a particular satellite or city, and the site will tell you where and when to look.
Step 2: Pick a Target
Step 3: Grab Your Binoculars
Step 4: Take Careful Notes F
Patrick Radden Keefe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of ?Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping.
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