Reasons for tracking, and secrecy

From: Michael Waterman (
Date: Wed Aug 11 2004 - 17:29:48 EDT

  • Next message: Björn Gimle: "Obs #5919 2004 Aug 11 UTC"

    As a satellite observer since 1958, (about 32000 obs) here 
    are some past and present reasons for observing.
    I speak as an observer, who occasionally determines orbits.
    I am a UK citizen, ex rocket scientist, who has worked on 
    military contracts in the UK and USA.
    I like seeing newsworthy satellites. Mostly just for fun,
    but also to get info maybe not otherwise available. 
    For example from watching the early Russian Salyut and Soyuz
    satellites you could tell if a Soyuz had docked. was close to 
    Salyut, or nowhere near. If things were not going well, the 
    Russians said nothing; the US military probably knew but said little.
    Magnitude variation of some satellites would tell if it was 
    spinning, suggesting a failure.
    The fuel dumps from the Apollo moon launches were fascinating.
    Currently I watch ISS/Soyuz/Shuttle, Gorizonts and secret satellites.
    Up to about 1985 observations of selected satellites were used for:
     (a) determining air density
     (b) determining high altitude winds
     (c) determining harmonics in the earth's gravity
     (d) looking at how the spin of rotating satellites slows down.
    Satellites with orbits suitable for these purposes were given
    high priority for observers. The observations were analysed
    by UK universities and others. These studies stopped because
    of lack of money to pay for people to do the studies.
    None of these studies have any immediate practical use. They
    contribute to a general understanding of the earth and its
    atmosphere, which may be useful in the future.
    There may still be some analysis going on. It would be easier
    for someone to do such studies now (computers are cheaper),
    using either TLEs or observations or both. (c) above would
    benefit from lots of observations of a satellite near resonance.
    I used to observe a mixture of priority satellites, and
    any satellite I had not seen before. I still do this, but
    my priority satellites are now mostly US secret satellites.
    After 9/11 I followed the custom of not posting my observations
    of US military satellites on seesat. I still archived the obs
    to heavens-above, but at least a month later. 
    How useful are our observations and orbits to rogue nations
    or terrorist groups?
    Clearly a static site can be seen anytime, so up-to-date
    obs/orbits would only be useful to avoid detection of events,
    If I (as a rogue dictator) wanted to conceal my missile test I
    might worry about spy satellites. One source of info would be seesat,
    but this would miss the satellites that seesat had not spotted. 
    Could I be sure that unclassified satellites did not carry spy
    cameras? Probably some do. Cameras and radio receivers could be 
    put into upper stage rockets used to launch non-military payloads.
    There are maybe 100 satellites that are operational spy 
    satellites (all sorts and all nations). 
    I (dictator) would not have a tracking system comparable to US or
    Russia, and could not trust that military data leaked by a friend 
    in US/Russia was complete or accurate. I suspect that I would
    not bother to try to find a time when no spies were above, but
    would choose to do my tests under cover of darkness/cloud/
    My (real me) conclusion is that amateur obs & orbits are of
    limited value to dictators/terrorists.
    I support the view that space belongs to no nation, and ideally
    there should be no restrictions on publishing obs or orbits. In
    the real world I accept that my knowledge is incomplete, so
    some restrictions may be necessary.
    If a few tens of observers+analysts can maintain orbits on
    about a hundred objects, then a thousand people could track almost 
    everything of significant size, using simple equipment.
    I predict that in a few years there will be several automated 
    large field-of-view CCD or similar devices staring at the sky all
    night, sending what they see to PCs which will update orbits of 
    expected satellites, and calculate orbits of unexpected ones.
    Finally I know (in the UK at least) secrecy is commonly used to
    prevent embarrassment to politicians, or to enhance the status of
    an official, rather than to prevent information being used by a 
    potential enemy.
    Mike Waterman
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