Meet the amateur astronomers who track secretive spy satellites for fun

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What the heck happened to Zuma? We know that the super-secret satellite was built by Northrop Grumman for an agency of the United States Government, and that SpaceX launched it on Sunday, January 7. But what we know is vastly outweighed by what we don’t know. We’re not sure which agency the satellite was built for, and while SpaceX has stated that their Falcon 9 rocket “did everything correctly on Sunday night," the successful deployment of the satellite was not confirmed. And because of the classified nature of the craft, no one is talking about what happened. It might have failed to deploy from the Falcon 9 rocket second stage before the second stage de-orbited. It could have made it to orbit but then malfunctioned. Maybe it actually made it into orbit just fine. But no one is saying what happened to it one way or the other. If Zuma is still up there, there’s a small group of people who will be ready and watching for it to reappear in a week, when its projected orbit should bring it out of Earth’s shadow and into the daylight. If it’s there, reflections of light glinting off the satellite should be visible from the ground in some parts of Europe and North America. And across the world, satellite trackers—who devote their spare time to seeing what some governments would really rather remained unseen—will be waiting to catch a glimpse of that glint. Scanning the skies Marco Langbroek has been an amateur astronomer for 40 years, starting when he was six years old. He was fascinated by meteors and fireballs, and started taking pictures of them. He kept it up even as he grew into a decidedly more down-to-earth career in archaeology. It’s a short jump from meteors to falling satellites, and Langbroek soon became interested in things that fell from the sky that humans had put up there to begin with—satellite re-entry. The change in direction led to a new, loosely-knit network of amateur observers that keeps tabs on the orbits of hundreds of classified satellites that continuously orbit the planet. “I discovered you could do all kinds of observations on secret satellites, and that captured my imagination, because, well, it’s secret. That’s exciting,” Langbroek, who's based in the Netherlands, explains with a laugh. “Seeing what you’re not to supposed to see is always a thrill."

Read More: Popular Science


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