Security Breach? Amateur Astronomer Has Already Spotted ‘Ultra-Secret’ U.S. Satellite

The ultra-secret U.S satellite launched by the NRO last week is not so secret anymore. Motherboard reports that some amateur astronomers have already spotted the latest spy satellite.

Amateur skygazers spotted the new craft over the Strait of Malacca, in the skies near Malaysia. They did it only a few days after the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office launched NROL-37.

WDSU reports that the key to spotting a satellite is surprisingly simple, and in this case, the massive size of the NROL-37 worked against it.

“So how was the satellite spotted so quickly? The method is surprisingly simple. Take a camera outside at night, and set it for a long exposure. Any star that doesn’t appear to “move” during the long exposure time is some sort of object in geosynchronous orbit with Earth. Naturally occurring geosynchronous orbits are incredibly rare (so rare that Pluto and Charon are the only examples we’ve discovered so far), so you can safely assume anything moving in time with the Earth’s rotation is manmade.”

Daily Mail reports that the Australian astronomer Paul Camilleri located the craft with guidance from Dutch satellite tracker Marco Langbroek. Langbroek wrote about the discovery on his blog and even hazarded a guess about where the craft will drift and why it was initially placed over central Australia.

“My guess (and no more than that) is that it will eventually stop drifting near either 80 E (south of Sri Lanka) or perhaps 10 E (over central Africa)…The reason for the initial placement near 104 E is likely that in this position it is initially well placed for the Pine Gap Joint Defense Facility ground station in central Australia (one of two facilities dedicated to NRO SIGINT payloads) during the initial check-out phase.”

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO ) is the U.S. intelligence agency that designs, builds, and operates spy satellites and provides satellite intelligence to several government agencies. The portmanteau SIGINT refers to signal intelligence, and the term “payload” refers to the segment of a craft that carries useful cargo or generates revenue.

The latest NRO spy satellite was launched into geostationary orbit via the Delta IV-Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket currently operating in the world. It was launched on June 11 from the Kennedy Space Center.

Motherboard reports that NROL-37 is the seventh member of the Mentor/Orion family, a class of massive signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites used to increase the eavesdropping capability of US intelligence agencies.

Public access to the satellite’s communications was cut off shortly after its payload fairing was jettisoned ie. shortly after the protective nose cone at the top of the rocket fell away.

“The public access to the satellite’s communications were promptly cut off when its payload fairing was jettisoned 6.5 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. This prescheduled radio silence is standard protocol for an NRO launch.”

payload fairing
BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN - MARCH 10: In this handout photo illustration provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), the payload fairing seperates during the ExoMars 2016 launch sequence, the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module can be seen as the fairing falls away, on March 10, 2016 in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The Proton rocket carrying the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli descent and landing demonstrator module to Mars will be launched on March 14. One of the Scientific objectives of the collaborative project between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Federal Space Agency is to search for signs of past and present life on Mars. (Photo illustration by David Ducros/ESA via Getty Images)
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Motherboard notes approvingly that the NRO mission has a “seriously bada** insignia patch” that looks like something straight out of Game of Thrones.

“[O]ne thing about the mission is abundantly clear: It has a seriously bada** insignia patch. Behold, Sir NROL-37, the dark knight of American reconnaissance spaceflight… It’s not often that a spaceflight mission logo could double as a Game of Thrones character.”

The NRO’s Facebook page provides some information about why they chose the insignia design.

“The mission patch depicts a knight, a symbol of courage with a chivalrous code of conduct representing bravery, training, and service to others… The knight stands in front of the US flag in a defensive posture as to protect at all cost. The eagle on the chest is a symbol of both freedom and the United States of America. The sword is a message of tenacious, fierce focus with the claws representing extreme reach with global coverage.”

[Photo illustration by David Ducros/ESA via Getty Images]