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Tracking the unknown satellites

Previously, only major companies could follow satellites, but today, many satellites are tracked by eager amateurs. However, having an observatory with expert support can help monitor many of the more fascinating satellites. This is the tale of how some individuals are doing precisely that, as well as the contribution they are making to space safety.

But, first and foremost, when we conceive about satellites orbiting above us, we differentiate them in one of several ways. One can tell who they are by their names. Another distinguishing feature is their “COSPAR ID,” that is an alphanumeric designator, followed by a unique number for each satellite. There isn’t enough area to go into detail about those here, however, there are a few websites that can help.

These satellites are classified in several “satellite catalogs,” one of which is maintained by the United States Space Force. They are in charge of maintaining the official satellites’ list (by default). This is commonly referred to as the Space Track catalog. It contains information on the majority of the larger satellites which have been launched. The satellite number, a “country of origin” for most objects, the COSPAR identifier, and some orbital parameters are all listed in the Space Track catalog.

Comparing the many satellite catalogs which exist is an interesting endeavor that rapidly reveals that each catalog has its quirks. There are multiple lists of satellites in orbit with similar purposes, yet they are all quite distinct. The most fascinating sites are those that acquire unique satellite observations so that they can collect and process data. Some websites replicate the satellite catalog yet do not accept satellite tracking and generate new data; these sites are not the focus of this article.

Satellite catalogs

But what are the primary satellite catalogs? There’s Space Track, which serves as the public image of the world’s official satellite catalog. As previously stated, Space Track is responsible for assigning official satellite numbers as well as COSPAR identifiers, which are used by the majority of satellite catalogs. They account for the majority of larger satellites adequately, and their goal is to list every spacecraft that has been discovered. Then there’s the Mini-MegaTORTORA website, which is a Kazan Federal University endeavor. The JSC “Vimpel Interstate Corporation” as well as the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics that is in Russia provide the “ISON satellite catalog.” International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) is an acronym for the International Scientific Optical Network, and several useful websites provide further information about the organization. They choose their satellite numbers rather than relying on those issued by Space Track. Numbers are also used in the Ukraine Network of Optical Stations (UMOS) database, as indicated in Space Track.

The Research Institute of the Mykolaiv Astronomical Observatory, that is under the guidance of Dr. Oleksander Shulga, has put in the most effort to compile and maintain this catalog.

Other satellite listings and catalogs exist, including a number of commercial ones. ExoAnalytic Solutions and Numerica Corporation both have one, although the ExoAnalytic catalog seems to be closed to the public.  There’s LeoLabs and the inaugural Commercial Space Operations Center, ComSpOC. They are undoubtedly extensive listings and catalogs; however, these are businesses that must charge for use to their (costly to obtain) data, thus any publicly available data largely duplicates Space Track. Europe has started a satellite catalog, abbreviated (the EU SST), however, parts of it may be open to the public in the future.

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