Spying on Spy Satellites with Thierry Legault

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Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve got pictures….. ground-based pictures of secret spy satellites in Earth orbit. We’re not revealing our sources, but … oh wait, I guess we might as well tell you. Even if we didn’t reveal our source, you’d probably guess that astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault — who has been sharing his wonderfully detailed ground-based images of the space shuttle and International Space Station with Universe Today – has been working on capturing other satellites in orbit as well. Legault and his partner in imaging crime, Emmanuel Rietsch have tackled the difficult task of tracking down spy satellites and then tracking them with a telescope. For imaging the shuttle and ISS, they developed their own design of a motorized mount outfitted with a computer program so it can slowly and precisely rotate in order to track and follow an object in Earth orbit with a telescope and video camera. Now they are able to image even smaller objects.

Above are images they were able to capture of three different spy satellites, including the X-37B spaceplane. More images and videos are available at Legault’s website.

Thierry Legault with his customized satellite tracking system. Photo courtesy Thierry Legault.

Since October 2010, Legault has been using the autoguided mount, with the help of a DMK 31AF03 Firewire video camera mounted on the finder (FL 200 mm) and of the software Videos Sky, created by Rietsch, and then modified by Reitsch and Legault for fast tracking with the Takahashi EM400 mount.

The X-37B spaceplane now in orbit is the second of the two Orbital Test Vehicles launched by the US Air Force, launched on March 5, 2011. Reportedly, it will conduct experiments and tests for close to nine months and then autonomously de-orbit and land. Legault and Rietsch were able to image the spaceplane in late May of this year with fairly good results.

“I tried to get help to identify the real orientation of X-37B,” Legault told Universe Today via Skype today, “but on the contrary of the Keyhole and Lacrosse satellites, it’s not easy considering its complex shape with several wings.”

And the Air Force isn’t telling.

“Keyhole-class” (KH) reconnaissance satellites have been used for more than 30 years and are typically used to take overhead photos for military missions. Some of the keyhole satellites resemble the Hubble Space Telescope, but instead of looking out into space, it looks back at Earth. A similar type of spy satellites are the Lacrosse satellites, which are radar-imaging satellites.

But even with the tracking system, getting images of small satellites is not easy. “Despite this performing tracking system and hours of training on airplanes passing in the sky, keeping the space ship inside a sensor of a few millimeters at a focal length of 5000 mm and a speed over 1°/s needs a lot of concentration and training,” said Legault on his website.

The autoguiding and acquisition are done via a laptop with a double hard drive (one of which is a Solid State Drive – made with flash memory), enabling the precision of tracking of about one arc minute.

For security reasons, the sighting times for spy satellites are not published on an official website like NASA does for the shuttle and ISS. But with a bit of digging, Legault said others can try their luck at trying to spot these secret satellites.

“Orbital data are in the Calsky database,” Legault told UT, “therefore their passages are forecast as for the ISS. Generally, orbits are determined by amateurs, some of them are specialized in this activity, especially Kevin Fetter (and data are exchanged on the Seesat mailing list, owned by Ted Molczan).”

Legault is well-known for his images of the shuttle and ISS transiting the sun, but he said the accuracy of orbital data for the spy satellites is not sufficient for capturing a solar transit – and besides, these satellites are much smaller than the ISS and would appear as a small dark dot, at best.

“But for nighttime passages the data is sufficient,” Legault said. “Generally they are not visible with the naked eye or barely (except during flares), but they are easily visible with a finder.”

See more information, information and videos — including a view of what the tracker sees, on Legault’s website.

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

Thierry Legault’s Incredible Ground-Based Views of Endeavour’s Final Flight

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Award-winning French astrophotographer Thierry Legault traveled through Germany, France and Spain during Endeavour’s final mission to find clear skies and good seeing to capture the shuttle’s voyage to the International Space Station. While he told us it wasn’t easy, the results are incredible! The visible detail of the shuttle and parts of the International Space Stations is absolutely amazing. You can see the newly installed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer in one shot, as well as the open payload bay doors on Endeavour in another. The video Legault shot is available on his website, and he has unique 3-D versions as well.

Below are some of his trademark views of transits of the Sun by ISS and Endeavour, with one showing the shuttle just before it docked to the station.

Solar transit taken on May 18th from Essen, Germany through thick clouds showing Endeavour a few minutes before docking to the ISS. Transit duration was 0.7 seconds. Credit: Thierry Legault.

Legault told us he was chasing the shuttle and the station from different parts of Europe, however because of weather problems (clouds and turbulence) he was not very happy with the results. But this image is stunning anyway even though clouds dimmed available light by more than 100 times, Legault said. What is perhaps most amazing is that the transit time for this pass in front of the Sun was 0.7 seconds!

Here’s a less cloudy view taken on May 25:

A close-up view of Endeavour and the ISS transiting the sun on May 25th from France. Transit duration was 0.5 seconds. Credit: Thierry Legault.

And the full view for reference. This transit was only a half second!

Solar transit taken on May 25th from France (Orleans), showing Endeavour docked to the ISS. Credit: Thierry Legault.
Series of transits taken on May 20, 22 and 23, 2011 from different areas of France, showing variations of orientation of the ISS with Endeavour docked. On May 23, the ISS passes besides a sunspot which is larger than the Earth. Credit: Thierry Legault

All transit images were taken with Takahashi TOA-150 6″ apochromatic refractor (focal length 2400mm and 3600mm) on EM-400 mount, Baader Herschel wedge. Nikon D3X at 1/8000s, 100 ISO, working in continuous shooting at 5 frames per second during 5 seconds.

Frames from videos taken from Spain (May 31) and France (June 1) 90 minutes before deorbit burn. Credit: Thierry Legault and Emmanual Rietsch.

Here are frames from videos taken by Legault and fellow astrophotographer Emmanual Rietsch just prior to the deorbit burn for landing on June 1. The video of these shots, as well as more images are also available on Legault’s website.

Thanks to Thierry for sending Universe Today these amazing images and allowing us to post them!

Space Station 3-D by Thierry Legault

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Run — don’t walk — to astrophotographer Thierry Legault’s website to see his latest incredible video of the International Space Station and a docked space shuttle Discovery. He sent us a note that he had great “seeing” from Weimar, Germany on Monday evening, where he has set up shop in order to capture the orbiting spacecraft as many times as possible during the STS-133 mission. The detail is stunning, — more detail even than his previous video from last weekend — as evidenced in the annotated image above. Legault has even created a 3-D movie — no special 3-D glasses required. He has instructions on his website of how to cross your eyes and squint to get the 3-D effect. “This method may require a bit of training if you are not used to squinting but it gives a very realistic view,” Legault explained. See the videos and find out how he creates these amazing views on his website.

International Space Station on the Moon?

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From our vantage point on Earth, it takes just a half second for the International Space Station to fly across the face of the Moon, so catching a transit is tricky. But award-winning French astrophotographer Theirry Legault captured an amazingly sharp and detailed transit image that makes the ISS look like it is sitting on the Moon’s surface! Legault took this image from Avranches (Normandy, France) a few hours before the eclipse, on December 20th at 21:34 UT. He used a Meade 10″ ACF on Takahashi EM400, with a Canon 5D mark II. The transit duration was just 0.55 seconds, as the ISS is traveling at 7.5km/s or 28,0000 km/h (17,500 mph). See below for a close-up crop of the image which shows the amount of detail visible of the space station.

Close-up of the ISS transiting the Moon. Credit: Theirry Legault. Used by permission.

Legault has also taken incredible images of the ISS and a docked space shuttle transiting the Sun, (at least twice), as well as the shuttle Atlantis and Hubble transiting old Sol.

See more of his images at his website, or click the images for larger versions. Legault told us he’ll be traveling for a good view of the solar eclipse on January 4, so we look forward to his images of that event.

Incredible Image: Atlantis and ISS Transit the Sun

Here are some incredible images of Atlantis and the International Space Station captured as it transit the Sun.

You can also view space from where you are. You just need a good telescope for that. Take a look at these cool and amazing telescopes from Amazon.com.

French astrophotographer Thierry Legault has done it again. He captured a view of space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station crossing the face of the Sun on May 16, 2010 about 50 minutes before the shuttle docked with the space station. Legault took the image from Madrid, Spain at 13:28:55 UT. “Atlantis has just begun the ‘R-bar pitch maneuver,'” Legault wrote on his website, “as the shuttle performs a backflip that exposes its heat-shield to the crew of the ISS that makes photographs of it; since its approach trajectory is between the ISS and the Earth, this means that we are seeing Atlantis essentially from above, with the payload bay door opened.”

Since this may be Atlantis’ last flight to space, the image is especially poignant.

See below for the full image, and make sure you go to Legault’s website and watch the movie of how quickly the pair of spacecraft actually flew across the face of the Sun — like the blink of an eye! It’s amazing he was able to capture this incredible image at all, not to mention how clear and sharp the two spacecraft are in the photo, against the face of the otherwise spotless Sun. The shuttle’s tail is even visible!

Legault said he used a Takahashi TOA-150 refractor (diameter 150mm, final focal 2500mm), Baader Herschel prism and Canon 5D Mark II camera, at an exposure of 1/8000s at 100 ISO, extracted from a series of 16 images (4 images/s) started 2 seconds before the predicted transit time.

Full image of the Sun, with transiting shuttle and ISS. Credit: Thierry Legault www.astrophoto.fr

Take time to browse through Legault’s impressive collection of spacecraft photography, including an amazing 3-D movie of the ISS.