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Tracking “Dark Ships” with New Satellite Technology (gijn.org)
145 points by jonbaer 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments





I thought they were going to talk about Canada's RADARSAT (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RADARSAT_Constellation), a new constellation that was launched for exactly this purpose. Apparently we've been having issues with foreign fishing vessels depleting the stocks in our territorial waters.

The New York Times' Visual Investigations team published an article and video a few weeks ago showing how they had tracked a tanker smuggling oil to North Korea. It's a fascinating maze of shell companies and dark ships using all kinds of techniques to evade detection.

Their reporting goes pretty deep and their renderings/animations are usually very well made, and this was no exception: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/24/world/asia/tankers-north-...


Hopefully this will put an end to illegal Chinese fishing fleets that turn off their responders to avoid authorities, like when they plundered the waters off the Galapagos (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/27/chinese-...).

Caught blabbin on 16, amateurs. Learn how to work your darn signal lamp!

Umm, semaphore flags?

Not when it's dark!

Maybe on full moons?

This has me thinking a sci-fi story centering around how hard monitoring large swaths of space actually is (with maybe some Expanse-style dicey politics for spice) would be pretty cool.

This is already basically there, but the real-life ramifications for the people in these regions undercuts the enjoyment of the tech-political drama.


Space has some unique challenges for both hiding and finding those who don't want to be found. For one you dont have a radar horizon. And combine that with microgravity means you can have arbitrarily large and powerful radar stations in space which can see for arbitrarily long distances.

Arecibo was until it sadly collapsed last year, not just a large radio telescope but the largest radar disk in the world. Larger radio telescopes lacked that feature. In space you could exceed it without the obvious scaling issues of such a large structure and its weight.

You also have heat as a problem. That space is cold is a bit or a misnomer. The problem with space is that its a near perfect vacuum so things tend to stay the same temp unless they are in direct sunlight. And if they are its hard to dump that heat.

With appropriate thermal imaging it would be pretty easy to tell a spacecraft apart from rocks because it will be making its own heat. Since radiation is the only reliable form of losing that heat you need large radiators on your craft like the ISS has. But those run contrary to good stealth design practices.

There is also the matter of orbits and how natural objects simply aren't going to have certain ones so no matter how innocuous you may look, if you are taking a path only a spacecraft would take nobody is going to be fooled.


Here is an article on this topic that goes heavily in depth on the topic:

http://toughsf.blogspot.com/2018/04/permanent-and-perfect-st...

Note that this is for strategic level stealth, which is to say your enemy doesn't even know you're in system. Tactical level stealth is vastly easier, and can be as simple as launching several hundred thousand heated decoys into system before entering yourself - one of these is the attacker, can you find which?

This last strategy is actually what we'd implement if ever anyone tried to seriously develop anti-ICBM technology.


The Millenium Falcon is known to run with false transponder codes (May the 4th be with you ;) ).

... but for a more serious thought, and to trend deeper into hard sci-fi: you can have a lot of fun with questions like "How good is the technology to identify solid objects in space that are intentionally minimizing their radiation exposure?" You don't even have to go too fancy with stealth-coatings or Star Trek cloaking-devices; a challenge of modern astronomoy is that shipping-vessel-sized rocks in space are very far away, reflect very little radiation, and can be moving extremely fast. Do the authorities monitor space with optical equipment, or do they have the resources to solve the distance-to-target problem by blanketing the space they control with a network of ships or sensors? Such a fabric would probably be the saddle-point between cheap and effective if they could be mass-produced.

You can also have fun with propulsion. A ship "on the drift" can be much darker than a ship undergoing maneuvers... And it can even stay dark in the direction it's accelerating if it's using cold exhaust fired away from the observer (or if it has a lot of time to maneuver and does so by firing photons away from the observer, which will only be visible if they reflect off something behind the ship). This gets into a very submarine-combat feel, which the videogame "Objects In Space" explored.

Interesting idea I don't think I've seen in sci-fi before is deploying a grid of small satellites in to space where all they do is measure the distances between each other. Then any objects passing through the grid gravitationally disrupt it, and depending on how accurate the distance measurements are (and how much math you can do to account for other gravity fluctuations), you could hypothetically get a fairly impenetrable safety net if you stick to hard-science and ships can't create antigravity effects at range... A smaller-scale experiment like this involving two satellites orbiting the moon is how NASA mapped the mass concentrations resulting from meteorite impacts that disrupt the orbit of lunar satellites (and the trajectories of landing craft).


As to your last idea, one of my old physics professors had a number of patents to his name, and I recollect something about the second excited state of the Helium-3 atom being able to detect minuscule variance in magnetic fields -- suitable for a grid of buoys waiting for a submarine to drift by.

Imagine non-propulsion. Selectively make one side of your ship ninety-nine percent black and the other side ninety-eight ... wait for light pressure to do its job. It's slow but damned if that wouldn't be difficult to detect as a method of making maneuvers.


There was a whole subplot with Marco Inaros about exactly that

The Dark Forest, the second book of Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy (Three Body Problem) goes into a good bit of exploration of the ramifications of space observation, communication and espionage in combination with relativistic distances starting out with roughly current human technology.

The Honor Harrington series by David Weber might be of interest. A lot of the strategy revolves around how hard patrolling, monitoring, and communicating (due to the time delay) in space is, and there is a good bit of politics as well.

> Honor Harrington series by David Weber

It's literally my favorite science fiction. I also recommend purchasing and reading at least the first half of the series. The latter half of the series go into a lot more political fiction instead of science fiction but it's definitely worth reading if you like the political story that develops in the middle of the series.


Thanks for the recommendation turns out the first 2 books are free for kindle.

Fascinating technology. I wonder when the first countries will try to use it to fight against Chinese vessels fishing entire ecosystems dry:

- Africa has been hit hard, with fishers losing at least 40% of income (although here these ships do seem to have some sort of license): https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/how-china-s-fishermen-ar...

- North Korean squid populations have been depleted so hard by Chinese vessels that Japan and South Korea felt the impact in reduced fishing amounts: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/30/china-beijing-fishing-a...

- The Philippines even reported "permanent structures" having been built on coral reefs to support illegal fishing: https://www.9news.com.au/world/south-china-sea-dispute-phili...


Wonder who's going to protect Africa when China has put so much investments in it..?

Most of Chinese pirate fishing happens in the open, with AIS on, and wholly reliant on victim country being unwilling, or too intimidated to use force.

Chinese fishermen have a record of ramming foreign coast guard, and even military ships of smaller countries.


Combine that with "Rods From God" or another non-explosive high-altitude loitering weapon and no transponder/no reason starts being an invite to Davey Jones Locker -- it might be costly but would pretty quickly dampen poaching and sanctions-busting...

Huh, a past employer of mine, Orbital Insight, has been tracking these 'dark ships' for years using a couple of different methods.

I can't say that I'm surprised that the quality of surveillance goes up by fusing sensor types, you'll definitely see it more in your hometown over time.

One thing that article made me think about is the morality of indicting shipments between two willing countries with ocean frontage. It's been a thing ever since bluewater navies got invented, but strikes me as having a sketchy ethical basis.


It is power applied, and power rarely bows to ethical concerns. We’re going to see more of it too as the implications of new technology seeps into the various power structures. It takes decades, but you’re seeing it happen.

'interdicting' of course.

Pretty impressive article about Iranian ships breaking Syrian sanctions.

That's the least interesting part of the article. The stuff about North Korean submarines and Chinese breaking North Korean sanctions is far more interesting.

I was just thinking if we can track who dumped those million barrels of toxic DDT off the coast of California with the recent Google Maps Time-lapse thing?

We know exactly who dumped them, and when, because the company doing the dumping kept records and shared them with investigators!

https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-coast-ddt-dumping-ground...


Its funny how newspapers keep touting evil china, but when Dow Chemical gassed 15,000 people in boupal to death they suffered no consequences in the west.

The dumping happened decades ago.

And that is what the decade old satellite imagery is supposed to help with, they recently released a feature to view time-lapses of any area over a couple of decades

This reminds me of the post about SAR satellites being able to peer inside buildings. Setting up a corner reflector would cause a giant bright spot to appear on the radar return. If all the ships did this, it would be much more difficult to track them.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25455852


I think the key part of that post is 'it would also draw a lot of attention to you'...

Might make it harder to establish the size of crates on your ship with ultra high resolution SAR, but you certainly wouldn't be hidden .


Only illegitimate ships would have any reason to do this, so I don't think the tactic could be very effective. If anything, it would make the illegitimate ships even more visible. Legitimate ships already have their AIS turned on, so they are by default trackable and have no need to nor benefit from evading satellite monitoring.

I believe this is false.

I have seen several sailing texts explicitly recommend the use of a retroreflector to improve the radar visibility of small fiberglass vessels.


Sorry, I should have specified that only illegitimate ships would have a reason for doing it for the purpose of hiding from scrutiny. I do not know all the other reasons why one might do this, but it seems to me based on the content of this article that the set of retroreflector hits less the AIS signatures would yield only illegitimate ships.

> Sorry, I should have specified that only illegitimate ships would have a reason for doing it for the purpose of hiding from scrutiny.

That smells of "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear"


In the case of maritime travel, this is actually the law of the seas, as discussed in the article. Whether it's true or not that you have "nothing to hide", you are not allowed to sail "under the radar". Same as how you are mostly not allowed to fly without a transponder.

It's more "a rule the US Navy and its agreeable subsidiaries are happy to enforce by strategic novel shipwreck generation".

I have very limited experience navigating in water but I would think collision avoidance would be an excellent reason to mandate AIS.

This plus the kinds of things the government does for mass surveillance in cities like Baltimore[0] seems to be a worrying trend in physical privacy these days… I used to say that you could always move to the radio dead zone in the Dakotas and give up Internet if you didn’t want to be unduly tracked, but I’m beginning to wonder if even that is enough these days.

0: https://www.cato.org/blog/judge-allows-warrantless-aerial-su...


SAR looks like good tool for searching lost containers

I imagine a future with smugglers and pirates which only move during the day and generate enough smoke and water vapor during scheduled flyover to hide their journey

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) can see right through vapour and smoke.

I have revised my vision to remove the ineffective cloud and it now includes a cruise ship fiberglass "kitcar" shell instead.

Your wake will get you. They are titanic signatures.

Fun fact: a significant part of the Lockheed Sea Shadow program was wake suppression.


I'm guessing following an enormous plume of smoke might not be a challenge.

or maybe they already use narco subs to avoid detection



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