Two classified satellite trails (Trevor Paglen)

Photographer Images Satellites That Do Not Exist

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016

by

Trevor Paglen is an astrophotographer with a difference… he takes photos of satellites that are not there. Officially “not there“, anyway. He spends many nights surveying the skies, waiting for classified spy satellites to pass overhead. When one appears, after researching what is actually out there (which is a hard task, these things are not meant to be discovered!) he captures it with his hi-tech astronomical spy satellite-catching equipment. His work makes for captivating (if unnerving) reading. Apart from capturing 189 “ghost” satellites in orbit, he’s turned his stargazing lenses to Earth and taken a peek into the top secret world of “black ops”…

In a new art show at the University of California, Berkley (link down at time of writing), it could be any regular astrophotography exhibit. But this one called “The Other Night Sky” is very different. The photographer is Trevor Paglen and he has an interesting pastime; he takes pictures of things the US government wants to keep secret. Firstly, Paglen’s night sky imagery documents 189 US spy satellites he has painstakingly tracked down and captured in a camera shutter to be displayed for public viewing. It’s one thing to sit and wait for the International Space Station to pass overhead (after following its orbit on Google Earth) and take a picture that looks better than a dim blur (much like my attempt at astrophotography!), but it’s quite another thing to do the research on something that shouldn’t exist, predict where the satellite might appear and capture its trail as crisply as Paglen does.

But how does he do this? Firstly, he uses spy satellite data compiled by renowned amateur astronomer Ted Molczan to predict when one of these classified satellites will pass through the night sky. He then sets his equipment up in the region of sky where he hopes the small dot may pass through. Using a computer controlled motor mounted telescope and webcam he focuses on a star and makes sure the shot is correctly composed. Using another, more powerful telescope and camera, he focuses on the same region. When the predicted satellite passes through the sky, he’s able to take a range of shots using the webcam-mount and powerful telescope. He’s collected 1500 images of pictures taken in this way, documenting the 189 satellites on different campaigns.

So far so good. His work may seem a little disconcerting at this point (after all, these are top secret satellites he’s spying on), but he draws a parallel between what he is doing with Galileo’s observations of Jupiter. “What would it mean to find these secret moons in orbit around the earth in the same way that Galileo found these moons that shouldn’t exist in orbit around Jupiter?” Paglen says. What he means is that the Catholic Church in Galileo Galilee’s time forbade any natural satellite to orbit around the gas giant; Galileo was observing something that shouldn’t exist. Paglen appears to be taking an anti-establishment stance himself by observing satellites orbiting the Earth that the establishment denies knowledge of. It’s an interesting concept.

But we haven’t touched on the really sensitive stuff yet. He uses his high-powered optics to look deep into locations on the ground, “restricted areas” within the US; particularly secret military facilities in the Nevada Desert. He uses a method known as “limit-telephotography” applying equipment more commonly used to studying the cosmos. Limit-telephotography is a way of photographing landscapes that cannot be viewed unaided, obviously a useful way of looking deep into restricted areas if there’s a structure in your line of site but obscured by atmospheric aberrations (such as heat haze). When using similar equipment to view distant galaxies, there’s only about 5 miles of obscuring atmosphere to look through, with limit-telephotography there might be over 40 miles of atmosphere to look through.

Whilst Paglen may be taking pictures of top secret locations, and his intent is highly political (he spends a lot of time trying to bring to light various “black operations” throughout the US), most of his imagery probably wouldn’t be too much of a concern to government agencies, but it is a rare peek into a dark world most of us will never fully comprehend…

Source: Wired


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Unbeliever
Guest
Unbeliever
June 22, 2008 12:59 AM

how exactly is he looking into locations on the ground? i don’t get it. is he looking through the earth on the other side or what?

midnight
Guest
midnight
June 22, 2008 3:54 AM

It’s a basic method of refraction mixed with the natural advantage of the curvature of the earth.

Mike
Guest
Mike
June 22, 2008 5:21 AM

So, does he want the spy satellites removed from the sky? Maybe he thinks they are reading his thoughts and adding them to the Government Database. Try wearing a hat lined with aluminum foil, that’ll keep this political thoughts safe.

RapidEye
Member
June 22, 2008 12:52 PM

All the other stuff aside, I thought trying to draw parallels between his work and Galileo was a bit of a stretch. I mean, really, is _THAT_ how he is trying to justify all of his effort? REALLY? Wow!

Vanamonde
Guest
Vanamonde
June 22, 2008 7:17 AM

How does one establish the country of origin for a secret satellite? The orbit will give you a possible latitude, but the bird may have a thruster that changed that orbit. And what about a polar orbit? All bets are off there.

Still, this seems to be a dangerous game. Anyone who plays had better make sure they pay their taxes on time.

TD
Member
June 22, 2008 7:58 AM

I don’t get the purpose for doing this. Galileo was photographic natural moons of Jupiter, and was pressured by the Church for helping disporve the Earth was centrally important. Photographing spy satellites is not revealing a basic truth of nature. I’d rather he investigated the pre-1965 astronomers claims of evidence of life on Mars, such as seasonal color change, polarization change, Sinton spectroscopic data showing carbon compounds, etc. …even though the book “Imminent Discovery” already reviews it, it still needs more researchers following up. “Life on Mars” is a basic truth of nature that is worth the time. Spy satellites? Who cares.

FairWeatherTempest
Guest
FairWeatherTempest
June 22, 2008 8:36 AM

Sounds like a good way to suddenly ‘disappear’….

Mike
Guest
Mike
June 22, 2008 8:46 AM

Nice photographic techniques but serves no other purpose except to further inflame world tensions. Sounds like someone is out of touch and should visit Cameroon or Mali for a refresher course in international politics.

senua
Guest
senua
June 22, 2008 11:31 AM

Some years back while doing a bit of star gazing from a canal boat in the middle of nowhere I saw three satellites in a triangle configuration cross the sky.
I asked members of my local astronomical society and one member who was into space craft said it could well have been military satellites of some kind.
Have never seen anything like it since.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
June 22, 2008 11:49 AM
Well, posting at Berkley is the first clue. He is obviously a naive and unappreciative person (assuming he lives in the western world). Naive because he obviously doesn’t understand what must be done in order to keep him ‘safe’ and allow him the right to do such a thing in the first place. This is probably the kind of person that if he was told that the government announced that they have been in contact with aliens for the last 60 years, instead of saying: “Oh my God! That is fantastic! There are other intelligent species out there, and here!”, he would say: “The government lied to us all this time! They can’t be trusted!” And not give… Read more »
Mek
Guest
Mek
June 22, 2008 12:40 PM

He is doomed.

Kevin M.
Guest
Kevin M.
June 22, 2008 12:58 PM

Such clever research can be a valuable tool for accountability in a free society, as long as we do not abuse the privilege. Injudiciously releasing classified information more reveals one’s own irresponsibility and immaturity than any imaginary conspiracy of the government.

The government is not in touch with anyone “out there” and the only intelligent life we need be concerned with is right here.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
June 22, 2008 1:12 PM

Yep.. “… reveals one’s own irresponsibility and immaturity ..” .. I’m okay with that, as well. But Berkley is the most naive, unappreciative, and unpatriotic place in America. So it makes me lean towards another reason he is doing this.
As for the “alien” thing, it was just an example, of course.

Tyler Durden
Guest
Tyler Durden
June 22, 2008 1:15 PM
“Well, posting at Berkley is the first clue. He is obviously a naive and unappreciative person (assuming he lives in the western world). Naive because he obviously doesn’t understand what must be done in order to keep him ‘safe’ and allow him the right to do such a thing in the first place. This is probably the kind of person that if he was told that the government announced that they have been in contact with aliens for the last 60 years, instead of saying: “Oh my God! That is fantastic! There are other intelligent species out there, and here!”, he would say: “The government lied to us all this time! They can’t be trusted!” And not give… Read more »
Tyler Durden
Guest
Tyler Durden
June 22, 2008 1:18 PM

Oh, and Al Hall, your “naive and unappreciative” comment is what really set me off. The citizens of the USA do not exist to serve their government, the government exists to serve the citizens.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
June 22, 2008 1:31 PM

Tyler –
Let me pose a question to you…..
Let’s say that you are boarding a plane and the guy in front of you is stopped by security because he is carrying a large knife (or a gun) and he says that it is within his constitutional rights to carry it. The right to bear arms. The second amendment.
Does he have the right to put your own personal safety at higher risk? .. It appears that is what this guy is doing.. He can have all of the rights he wants in my opinion.. But not if it puts my life in jeopardy. Ignorance or motive, he still appears to be doing it.

Tyler Durden
Guest
Tyler Durden
June 22, 2008 1:44 PM
Airlines are private companies and as such have the right to refuse service to anyone they wish. They can choose what you can and can not bring on board, and agree to any request the government makes concerning those prohibitions. If an airline wished to go into operation that specifically supported transportation of firearms or smoking in the cabin, I’d support it. Provided that the company fulfilled its obligation to its customers, by providing adequate security in the form of armed flight crew, and by disclosing their policies up front and requiring its passengers to sign a waiver acknowledging their consent. In any case the analogy is not worthwhile. A country is not an airplane, it’s 300 million… Read more »
Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
June 22, 2008 1:57 PM

Do you live in Berkley? smile
I’m just messing with you, man..
My point was that this guy is exercising his constitutional rights but possibly putting my (and family) personal safety at risk.
Can we agree to that?

Tyler Durden
Guest
Tyler Durden
June 22, 2008 3:32 PM

Not really. It’s not like he was giving our missle codes to a terrorist group. He’s pointed out satellites in the sky that have an unknown purpose and belong to unknown nations.

Do you really think any nation that could conceivably be a threat to the ridiculously oversized US military doesn’t already scan the skies with far more sophisticated equipment?

How is this information “a threat to you and your family?” – assuming he’s even disclosed something that wasn’t known already?

wpDiscuz