As I first noted in this comment I couldn't get TLEs for the recently launched OFEQ-11 spy satellites from space-track.com. When I looked at Search Resuls: OFEQ 11 Satellite details 2016-056A NORAD 41759 - N2YO.com I got a map that showed it over it's "target area." At the bottom of the page it lists what appear to be Two Line Elements, and if I plug them into SkyField using Tel Aviv coordinates, indeed those TLEs put OFEQ-11 above the horizon at the same time.


But the link where n2yo says it's getting the data is now empty http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/MasterCatalog?sc=2016-056A


Onn the appropriate page in calsky.com http://www.calsky.com/cs.cgi/Satellites/1?obs=76732742607510&satid=2016-056 when I click the TLE link gives a long line of predicted TLEs: http://www.calsky.com/observer//tle.cgi?satid=16056A&lang=en which show it burning up in the atmosphere about 100 days from now.


There is a map and a TLE show here also! http://www.heavens-above.com/orbit.aspx?satid=41759&lat=0&lng=0&loc=Unspecified&alt=0&tz=UCT

This thread may be helpful:

"Don't expect TLEs from Space-Track - Ofeq TLEs have been classified since 2011."

So where are these second-hand TLEs coming from, considering the orbit is classified?

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    $\begingroup$ You can't really hide an orbit: space.stackexchange.com/questions/1364/…. The satellites are not invisible, so they can be tracked and the current orbit deduced. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Sep 20 '16 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ @called2voyage I'm asking about "the rest of the story." Where are these sties actually getting these TLEs or similar orbit data. You can say "from the sky" but that's not what I'm after. You can link to an example of the mathematical algorithms that convert sightings or doppler measurements into orbital elements, but that's not what I'm after either. Who is doing these calculations? Are these TLEs or orbital elements circulated through some "orbital black market" or club? $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 20 '16 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ There are non-governmental organizations that track satellites and release this information. Do you really want us to figure out which one was used for each of your examples? $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Sep 20 '16 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @called2voyage I gave multiple examples in order to show effort and to illustrate the scope. Actually your link is very interesting, maybe if PearsonArtPhoto added it to that answer it could help a lot! $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 20 '16 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ Note when I look at the N2YO page I see this text near the TLE: "Source of the keplerian elements: McCants". I believe (but aren't certain) it's this site. So it appears not to be coming from the nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/MasterCatalog?sc=2016-056A page at all. Maybe the Nasa site is not up to date (as the satellite was launched recently) or Nasa have a policy to not show these? $\endgroup$ – Andy Sep 20 '16 at 17:40

There is an international network of observers of classified satellites, organized around the Seesat-L mailing list: http://www.satobs.org/seesat/seesatindex.html

They typically look for satellite passes using binoculars and a stopwatch, or using a camera. Then they fit TLEs to those observation, to be able to find the satellite on a later pass. You can get those TLEs on Mike McCants' site: https://www.prismnet.com/~mmccants/tles/

For a little bit on background on them, here is an article on one of the members, Ted Molczan: https://www.wired.com/2006/02/spy-3/

Here is the website of Marco Langbroek, who tracks geostationary satellites using telescopes: http://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/?_sm_au_=i2VrV5PNT5tRFWRP

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    $\begingroup$ Came here to post this, you nailed it :) $\endgroup$ – pericynthion Sep 27 '16 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @pericynthion et al. why the "synchronicity"? Question and first answer have been here about six days. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 27 '16 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @gosnold Thanks for all of this. I hope you didn't divulge any trade(craft) secrets! Is the hash after the ?_sm_au_= at the end of the blogspot link a homing device - are we now being tracked? :-) $\endgroup$ – uhoh Sep 27 '16 at 16:27

There are a few ways.

  1. Visual tracking
  2. Tracking of it's RF emissions
  3. Radar tracking.

I suspect it's the first two. If you know about where something is, you can see it visually, and track it's RF emissions to boot. People make a hobby of such things.

There are a number of web sites that track this information. https://www.prismnet.com/~mmccants/tles/ is one of the first ones that I found, there are other online communities that collect this information. I can only assume that the popular websites collect info from these sources.

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    $\begingroup$ It's probably worth adding that the military doesn't really expect this information to be completely opaque. The location of the satellite is not really what the classification is meant to protect, since they know that you can't really hide such a satellite in orbit. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Sep 20 '16 at 16:55

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