Photographer Images Satellites That Do Not Exist

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

41 Replies to “Photographer Images Satellites That Do Not Exist”

  1. 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?

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 a crap about the subject matter of the announcement.

  10. (Hey, guys, I just found a nice article on Wired and thought “that’s pretty cool, this guy spies on the spy satellites!” – where did the political intrigue come from?!)

    Great discussion though, and thanks Al for blaming it all on me ๐Ÿ˜‰ – I’ll get on with my next global warming article (yes, we did it!), this 2012 stuff is getting depressing!

    And thanks Mike, I’ll check your site now. Sounds pretty cool!

    I’m off into my back garden to find myself a spy satellite… not where’s my binoculars…

    Cheers, Ian ๐Ÿ˜€

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. “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 a crap about the subject matter of the announcement.”

    Is this intended as sarcasm? If not, I find your attitude disturbing. I’m of the attitude that any power you give to a government is a power that can be abused. America was founded on the very concept of * not trusting your government * and rebelling against excesses of power.

    Our government’s power has increased enormously since the 9/11 attacks. They’re getting bold enough that it’s not unreasonable to want to prevent them from expanding those abilities and to expose their illegal activities (NSA wiretapping, elimination of due process, “rendition” of suspected terrorist suspects, subpoenaing hundreds of millions of cell phone records and search engine data).

    Anyway, on the subject of the article, I’m sure this guy enjoys the media attention. I can practically see the black helicopters already ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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 people with different needs and desires. To suggest that an agency “knows best” what we should and should not know is foolish.

    Trust should be earned, not expected.

  17. Do you live in Berkley? ๐Ÿ™‚
    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?

  18. 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?

  19. I see.. So we agree to disagree, as ‘they’ say. You don’t see the potential future ‘threat” as I do. Fair enough. I hope you are right. I really do..I sincerely do…
    I didn’t come to this forum to speak of politics (there are plenty of sites for that).., I was just commenting on the article and appreciate your perspective (and counter) as well.
    Do you know his information wasn’t (or won’t be) already known? You are assuming that it wasn’t (hasn’t).
    “… ridiculously oversized US military..” is your opinion.. Not mine.
    “How is this information a threat to you and your family”?… Do you know it isn’t? Sounds like it could be to me.. You don’t see that it is possible?

  20. I think many people clearly missed the point of this article. Perhaps it is one of those instances where if one needs ‘moral’ explained then there is little point in attempting an explanation to them.

  21. “รขโ‚ฌยฆ ridiculously oversized US military..” is your opinion.. Not mine.”

    Not an opinion – a mathematical fact. The U.S. spends at least 10 times more on defense than the second-largest military in the world.

  22. Yet.. lol. Our currency is so devalued it’s a joke. Anyone with any sense is switching to Euros, although I have my doubts about how long that will be viable. Europe’s economy is too inextricably bound to our own.

  23. Ummm.. I don’t think that has anything to do with the article, but…. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Try here:

    As for the European Union. yep… It is doomed to fail… No federation in history has ever survived for too long. Too much difference.
    Hey! But it least it should help the dollar!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Sorry all… Before anyone else gets a chance to respond, I want to clarify. I should have said “”help””, not “help”… I know, it looks the same.. I know this is UT but want to make it clear that to most Americans the weak dollar means nothing. A Coke and most other things (except gasoline) costs pretty much the same. The weak dollar only discourages overseas tourism and foreign investment (from Americans). Of course the Chinese can still undercut us but that is another story…. What the weak dollar does do is promote tourism and more importantly, foreign investment (in America). There is a reason why our stock market is so high… It’s the weak dollar.
    Say what you want about the current US administration but…
    Please.. No Bush bashing here.. Just stating a fact.. Just clarifying my statement, not trying to start a political debate in this forum. Nothing more.. Okay? Thanks..

  25. Why is it that almost any article posted in here seems to touch off a heated political debate?

    The guy is imaging SPY SATELLITES. I think we can all agree that that is awesome distilled to its purest form. No? Well you’re wrong then (and probably vote republican, which makes you even more wrong).

  26. It’s Ian’s fault.. He’s really good at it… I am patiently waiting for another article about 50km wide solar sails or the “proof” of us being the cause of global warming… Oh wait.. Let us not forget about 2012!!.. ๐Ÿ™‚
    P.s… I’m almost always right (until you can prove differently).. ๐Ÿ™‚ I don’t agree with all of the Republican party line, but they are a heck of a lot closer to my fundamental beliefs (morality, equality, opportunity) than others.. So……
    Are we finished with politics here in this forum???

  27. Hello,

    Sorry to say this, but 189 satellites is not very impressive, even if they are classified. I myself, alone, detected and tracked 2,050 satellite (classified and non) with a single telescope and digital camera.

    An image of a satellite by itself is a meaningless streak. What information you get out of the “streak” (time, position, brightness, tumbling, etc.) is the real fascination. Taking images of satellites is quite easy these days. Just go to a number of websites and look up their orbit elements. Plug them into astronomy software that can accept them and tell the computer to go there. Take an image. Do it again and again, etc.

    Go to There you will find orbit elements for the satellites that “do not exist”.

    This story is sensationalistic and very 1960’s, treating satellties as James Bond top secret. This is garbage. Anyone with a small telescope and a CCD camera can detect these objects. There is no shock value here anymore.

    The “three satellites in formation” one member spoke of earlier were the NOSS classified satellites. They are no longer in threes, just twos, but they still seem to fly in formation. They are American and they are naked eye. Go to the first website above for their orbit elements. It’s as simple as that.

    I have been doing satellite tracking for over 10 years and no one has knocked on my door donning black suits and sunglasses. Go to my wesbite and see the real story. There you will find the images of all 2,050 satellites I tracked last year for Sputnik’s 50th Anniversary, plus research papers about satellite tracking.

    The majority of satellites are helping us every day with communications, navigation, weather forcasting, you name it. We depend on them every single day, yet we still insist on treating them as if they were “top secret espionnage”.

    We should start treating satellites as a serious business and not as an issue of “Amateur Spy and Politics Today”.

  28. “Al Hall Says:
    June 22nd, 2008 at 5:58 pm ”

    I was just joking around with the ‘republican’ cheap shot; I wasn’t having a go at you or anyone. Anyhow, I agree! – politics aside.

    I think the imaging is cool. It would be better however, if they could actually get resolved and detailed images of these classified sats – but then they really might get a knock on the door from the NRO or somebody.

    Mike Earl Says:
    June 22nd, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    “This story is sensationalistic and very 1960’s, treating satellties as James Bond top secret. This is garbage. Anyone with a small telescope and a CCD camera can detect these objects. There is no shock value here anymore.”

    To a certain extent, I beg to differ. There are a large number of satellites up there that are ‘James Bond’ top secret. As evidenced by the fact that they are top secret. Just because it is possible to hunt them down and photograph them doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t highly advanced or classified – and therein lies the fascination for many.

    I agree with you though – as a political statement and/or technical achievement, just snapping some pics of these objects is not Earth-shattering. But for me the fascination lies in directly imaging objects that contain classified technology developed on almost limitless budgets, so it is fun to speculate about their possible capabilities and what their purpose may be… and I don’t think that that is treating satellites as anything less than serious business.

  29. ๐Ÿ™‚ Astrofiend-
    I know.. I have read enough of your posts.. You have a head on your shoulders… I respect what you write.

    Ian – Bring it on!!…………. Well……. Okay… I suppose I respect what you write too, sometimes… ๐Ÿ™‚ .. Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t give me facts on some of ‘your’ certain beliefs then I will continue to be skeptical.. ๐Ÿ™‚

  30. Hmmm, taking picture of things that don’t exist, sounds like something paranormalist would do.

  31. Well said Mike (Earl)!

    By the way… to the conspiracy theorists/politicians/warlords/berkley residents/etc…: the rest of the world is not interested…

    Lighten up! This is an astronomy science website!


  32. To me the really stupid thing is this. If you wanted to photgraph spy satellites and uncover a government conspiracy….. why would you use your real name?

  33. What he is doing isn’t anything the US Military is going to go knocking on his door about. He isn’t threatening national security. In fact, other nations routinely track US satellites using RADAR. A much more accurate means of tracking and determining what type of satellite it may be.

  34. Spy satellites are actually very valuable. They have shown us that there are at least 4 countries that we haven’t bombed yet. They’ve shown us that Antarctica is using materials intended for penguin research in amassing weapons of mass destruction. They have revealed that 86-year old Mitsy “Jennifer” Brown of Boston is a terrorist, or at least that she might have spoken with a terrorist who helped her cross North Burns Street 17 years ago. Also spy satellites have photographed some remarkable down-blouse cleavage which of course remains classified. Anyway, when you have an annual budget of 1.3 trillion dollars, which by the way is 10 times as much as EVERYBODY else’s killem budgets put together, then you’ve got to spend it SOMEwhere. Heck, it’s not like there’s anybody STARVING, for Pete’s sake. (This just in: Actually we now have reason to believe there may actually be some 5 countries we haven’t bombed yet.)

  35. What most posters seem to have overlooked is this man’s obsession with “American” classified satellites and sites.

    I notice he seems to have no interest in Russian, Chinese, European or Indian or Israeli classified satellites or ground installations (although realisticly his chances of using sophisticated optics to view a classified installation outside the US is very slim, and the result of doing so outside the US would be either a long period in prison or the death penalty).

    So his interest seems to be motivated by anti-American politics, and the supreme irony is he can only carry out his “hobby” and publish his results in the United States under the protection of American laws and customs!

  36. im suprised this guy hasn’t been shot! its a matter of time before the u.s. government cottons on to his spying

  37. What? No one is to look up at the sky?
    Who say’s this so-called secret space trash is ours any way? What, they are color coded or something? Geeze first you want to ban guns, now what; Telescopes?
    Honestly, like the Chinese couldn’t figure this
    out by themselves? Who cares?

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