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The Power of Amateur Hour

In a few months a US satellite is destined to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and at least part of it will make it to the surface of the planet. The government is not sure exactly where the satellite will land and it has said nothing about what kind of satellite it actually is. Enter Ted Molczan:

. . . a hobbyist who tracks satellites from his apartment balcony in Toronto . . . [he needs] little more than a pair of binoculars, a stop watch, and star charts, uncover some of the deepest of the government's expensive secrets and share them on the Internet.

In the case of the mysterious satellite that is about to plunge back to earth, Molczan had an early sense of which one it was, identifying it as USA 193, which gave out shortly after reaching space in December 2006. It is said to have been built by Lockheed Martin and operated by the secretive National Reconnaissance Office.

Molczan is one of many satellite-spotters worldwide who demonstrate the collective power of amateur intelligence gatherers. The government makes a concerted, and expensive, effort to keep the locations and paths of its satellites secret to avoid having adversaries take denial-and-deception efforts against them: to little apparent avail.

When a new spy satellite is launched, the hobbyists will collaborate on sightings around the world to determine its orbit, and even guess at its function, sharing their information through the e-mail network SeeSat-L, which can be found via the Web site Visual Satellite Observer.

As you might expect, the government is not terribly keen on the work done by these one-man tracking stations, but since you can't classify space, there is little that can be done to stop them. More importantly, if Tom on his balcony can do it with a pair of binoculars, any nation-state adversary with sufficient interest can do it as well.