Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Tracking the Dark Side on a shoestring budget

From January 23 to 26, 2023, I attended the 2nd NEO and Debris Detection Conference at ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany. I had a poster-presentation on  the work we Independent Space Observers (ISO's) from the SeeSat-L mailinglist do on tracking classified objects.

The resulting 6-page Conference Paper, co-authored by Cees Bassa and Ted Molczan and titled "Tracking the dark Side on a shoestring budget", has now appeared in the on-line conference proceedings. The PDF can be downloaded here.



A lot of SSA work on earth-orbiting satellites can be done with modest, off the shelf equipment. This has been shown by an informal group of Independent Space Observers (“ISO’s”) organized around the Seesat-L mailing list. They optically track some 200 “classified” objects – objects for which orbital elements are not provided in the public orbital catalogues – using very simple equipment: from binoculars and stopwatch on the ‘old skool’ end to DSLR’s or sensitive CCTV or CMOS/CCD cameras with fast photographic lenses and GPS time management on the sophisticated end. In this paper, a brief outline is provided on the techniques and equipment used by Seesat-L members and an example is given of how a new launch is located and tracked. It is discussed why the whole concept of keeping the orbits of certain space assets “classified” is problematic: not only is it unrealistic, but it also goes against core notions of transparency and accountability regarding activities in space.


A group of Independent Space Observers (ISO’s) has demonstrated that tracking large and medium sized artificial objects in earth orbit, and occasionally even smaller ones such as cubesats, using relatively inexpensive equipment made of commercial-off-the- shelf components is feasible. Such relatively low cost equipment could be a way forward to quickly add optical tracking capacity to increasingly strained tracking networks, especially with the rise of mega-constellations. ISO’s have also demonstrated that certain objects whose orbits are kept “classified” by the responsible Nations, can often easily be observed using such equipment. This underlines how highly unrealistic it is to expect that the orbits of certain (military) space assets can be kept ‘secret’. From the viewpoint of Space traffic management, it is actually undesirable to have a situation where the presence of certain classes of tracked objects are kept undisclosed. The practise moreover goes against core notions of transparency and accountability regarding activities in space, such as laid out in Resolution 222 (XXI) of the United Nations (the ‘Outer Space Treaty’

1 comment:

Arie Nouwen said...
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