Amateur astronomers using home computers and high-powered binoculars were able to track the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis as it deployed a secret spy satellite.
"If we could figure it out, you could bet that the Russians figured it out too," says Ted Molczan, a self-described "space enthusiast" who helped organize the tracking.Although he said the information gathered had little practical use, the project showed secrecy is a rare commodity in the sky.
In Washington, David Garrett of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said, "We don't comment on secret satellite launches."
Molczan, 35, said in a recent interview that the satellite watchers are hobbyists who work together informally, trading information through telephone calls, letters and electronic mail.
The secrecy of the Atlantis' early December mission made their research challenging and intriguing "detective work," Molczan said.
"As space enthusiasts, for us to see the space shuttle is a very exciting thing," he said, adding that he was thrilled by the rare prospect the shuttle would be visible over Canadian skies.
Shuttle orbits generally are farther south.
Molczan is an engineering technologist who specializes in energy conservation. His interest in space is visible in his sparsely furnished 23rd floor apartment; a computer and charts lie on his desk, books on the subject cram a bookcase and high-power binoculars sit on a stand near the door.
The binoculars, said Molczan, are more useful than telescopes for satellite watching because they are easier to point and have a wider field of view.