The Man Who Hunts Spy Satellites

Thierry Legault is not your average amateur astronomer, inviting the kids over and pointing a dinky backyard telescope at the Big Dipper. He’s a renowned astrophotographer, painstakingly chronicling the orbits of planets, distant galaxies, spaceships, and—to the chagrin of the intelligence community—of the spy satellites we’re not supposed to see.

These days, we are inundated with a constant feed of reality defying images sent back to us from space by the very carefully calibrated equipment we send up there. But for Thierry, the act of capturing space is a much more personal process. It’s man versus nature.

And upon our rainy arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport, there she was. As we looked up on the cold and rainy Friday of our arrival in Paris, looking forward to a fantastic voyage of space, the sky thundered its response.

In order to capture a planetary passing, a satellite, or a shuttle, Thierry often travels thousands of miles to the far reaches of the Earth, often in a race with time and weather, and he often fails. “It is not funnest part of the game, driving, and trying to find clear skies, but when it is successful, it is more rewarding,” Theirry says.

Ultimately, weather and timing matter, but so does technology. The very logistics of capturing these fleeting moments themselves tend to involve complex calculations and the help of sophisticated camera and telescope tracking technologies. He often doesn’t actually see the moments in space he photographs because he’s looking at his watch.

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