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…