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Canadian tracks down secret U.S. space plane Add to ...

Kevin Fetter was cleaning the floors at the PetroCanada station in Brockville, Ont., when he accidentally located a secret U.S. space plane.

An American robotic shuttle known as the X-37B was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 22 under a shroud of secrecy. But Mr. Fetter and an ad-hoc team of international satellite watchers tracked it down - or up - when the 36-year-old recorded footage of the craft in orbit early last Thursday morning while working the nightshift at his job.

He had pointed his telescope into the night before leaving for work, hoping to capture an out-of-service satellite that flashes brightly at specific times. His telescope is connected to a DVD recorder with a built-in hard drive, and when he watched the footage the next day, he saw a bright object zoom across the view field.

He checked its orbit against known satellites and spacecraft and came up with nothing. And so he posted the co-ordinates and time on a website called Heavens-Above and a mailing list called SeeSat-L, both of which are frequented by a band of amateur satellite trackers, who soon linked his sighting to the X-37B.

"I saw it by pure luck, just because I was aimed at a certain area of sky," Mr. Fetter said.

U.S. officials have said little about the 5.5-ton space plane, the next generation of space shuttle and a craft that is believed to be part of a program developing a new brand of spy satellites.

A U.S. Air Force official told The New York Times on Friday that the mission has "no offensive capabilities."

But Ted Molczan, a Toronto satellite watcher who has been featured in The New York Times and Wired magazine, said the plane's orbit, which was kept secret by military officials, is following a pattern commonly used by spy satellites.

Mr. Molczan said the sky watchers associated with Heavens-Above have been tracking the plane's route since Mr. Fetter's discovery. It is about 410 kilometres up and circles the globe every 90 minutes. On route, it passes over Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and Iraq.

They began searching for the plane after its launch, relying largely on data from Notice To Airmen, or NOTAMs, which are released to inform pilots and mariners about the possibility of falling space debris.

With that information, Mr. Molczan estimated that the X-37B would be orbiting at 33 degrees to the equator, and set his network into motion monitoring the sky at that co-ordinate. But a month ago, he received a mysterious e-mail telling him the orbit was actually 40 degrees, a tip that turned out to be accurate.

"Even if you want to keep it a secret, if the guys with binoculars can find it, so can anyone," he said. "Almost everything up there is in a known orbit, either because the U.S. government publishes it, or because we've already found it. So it's really about the process of elimination."

But the group does have an impressive track record when it comes to monitoring the sky.

In 2006, Mr. Molczan was profiled in Wired for his ability to deduce satellite orbits, and in 2008, Mr. Fetter was the first to accurately calculate the positioning of a $100,000 tool bag lost in space by astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.

Mr. Fetter has no formal training and lives at home with his mother, who was surprised two years ago when the international media started calling their home about her son's discovery.

"She was like, 'What the hell's going on?' " he recalled.

He says his hobby helps him relax and connect with people around the world, but he also believes there is a larger purpose to the hobby. Space is meant for peaceful purposes, he says, and groups like his keep the public informed about what is going on up there. His mother told him he used to gaze up at the stars as a child and, some nights at work, he still does.

"There's no competition, no need to win," he said. "Customers come in and say they've seen me staring at the sky."

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