Preface: All below is happening in current Earth, current time, current technology.


The world as you know it is divided between two strong forces. Lets call them "Illuminati" and "Lizard People". These people are different races who look exactly like humans, but have powerful superpowers:

  • Super speed
  • Super strength
  • Extra fast regeneration

Both races live on human blood and they hate each other. During our history they basically split the world in two parts. Of course, the fight continues.

Illuminati know that there is somewhere in Indian Ocean there is secret island belonging to Lizard people. The Illuminati also know that one specific cargo ship visits this island once a while. So this ship needs to be tracked.

The problem: This ship operates mostly in South China Sea and Indian Ocean and its surrounding, where South China Sea is under strong guard of Lizard People.

The task: Track the cargo ship as secretly as possible.

The tools: Illuminati own one of communication companies, so they have also satellites on the orbit which are capable of Google Earth - like resolution tracking of the Earth. (In other words good enough to see one relatively large ship on sea).

Other than that, Illuminati can buy loads of things, but nothing on military grade. They can have for example planes, but supersonic planes are off limits. They can have anything what is produced commercially.

The hurdle: Lizard people know that the satellites may be used for tracking, so they are using weather to their advantage and visit the island only at times when there are heavy clouds above area as big as possible.

The question: Can I track cargo ship from the orbit? Or am I out of luck? (And in both cases, why?)

The ship in question is Panamax class cargo ship:

  • Length: 289.56 m (950 ft)
  • Beam: 32.31 m (106 ft)
  • Height: 57.91 m (190 ft)
  • Draft: 12.04 m (39.5 ft)

closed as off-topic by Mołot, sphennings, L.Dutch, Ash, Josh King Oct 24 '17 at 14:14

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  • $\begingroup$ Weather systems (where most clouds are) usually move much faster than ships. This limits the amount of time the ship has to duck under weather, navigate several hours to the island (often through a storm), dock (often during a storm), load/unload (often during a storm), and depart several hours before the weather clears the island. If the ship is observed within an hour or two before ducking into the clouds and after emerging, the uncertainty of island's location is perhaps 200 miles at most. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Oct 24 '17 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ If this is happening in the current time with current technology all you are asking is "Can I track cargo ship from the orbit?". This question isn't about worldbuiling. It's about the current state of technology. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Oct 24 '17 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure satellites can see through clouds. The fact that clouds block our spectrum doesn't mean that they block all the light. I found this after a small research. $\endgroup$ – xpy Oct 25 '17 at 8:58

Radar Satellites

The concept of using radar to track ocean-going ships is 50 years old. The Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT), satellites were used from 1967 to track ships at sea. One of them caused quite the buzz in 1978 when it failed to park its used nuclear reactor in orbit, and it fell over Canada.


If you can smuggle something onto the ship, you can have that something give off a directed radio transmission every once in a while; a "ping". As long at the transmission is highly directional upwards, it can probably evade detection. The reconnaissance satellite does not need to use active radar then but can just listen to the "ping". The ping can also include the tracker's own location as sussed by using GPS.


Yes and No: The ship can hide for only short periods

There are three ways to track the ship: The existing ship transponders, satellite imaging, and port-based data. None are perfect, but together they can provide quite good coverage.

The existing AIS transponder: Legitimate ships are already tracked from orbit by a commercial service. There are only about 300-or-so Panamax ships on Earth, and all the legitimate ships keep their AIS transponders on at all times.

The transponder is not a fully-reliable standalone tracker - it can be disabled or fooled for short periods. The Lizard ship turns can turn off it's transponder while outside ports and busy sea lanes (many warships do this), and can perhaps change transponders entirely. Transponder-off while in a port or busy sea lane risks collision and quickly attracts attention.

However, the anonymity is only temporary: Any subscriber to the commercial database of transponder pings can monitor for the relatively few anomalous track-starts and track-ends of a ship turning their transponder on and off. This is one way to re-acquire the ship after a successful evasion.

Satellite imaging: Several commercial satellite services (example service) sell near-real-time snapshots. It's possible to follow the ship from orbit...during good weather.

However, the orbits of those low-orbit satellites are also published. The ship can use both weather and satellite gaps to evade multiple passes of the satellites.

It cannot hide forever, though. Most Panamax ships operate at about 35 km/h, so the area of uncertainty between satellite passes is not very large.

Port-based Data: The ship operates in a known area with a finite number of Panamax-capable ports plus their island. If space-based surveillance truly loses the ship, it will turn up at one of those ports soon enough and with a transponder turned on.

Most ports publish ship arrivals and departures (example). Most ports also have both public and private webcams facing the sea; imaging a ship with an anomalous transponder ping to see if it's the Lizard Ship is often just a matter of patience. Even if the webcam doesn't work, you have a location for the next satellite pass.


Why necessarily track them from via satellite? What about a commercial submarine to follow them? I just googled that such a thing exists.

If the cargo ship is not using sonar a submarine could not be detected, if i am correct. I do not know whether sonar is standard equipment for commercial ships that size or not, but if it were to have that a submarine wouldn't work either.

  • $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question. The question is "Can I track a cargo ship from the orbit?" $\endgroup$ – sphennings Oct 24 '17 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Submarine in space is not going to work. $\endgroup$ – Vincent Oct 24 '17 at 20:01
  • $\begingroup$ The reason i mentioned the submarine is the amount of funds available. The question asked for whether tracking from orbit would be possible, but nowhere it stated that the tracking would necessarily have to use a satellite. Why use a more difficult satellite tracking if a different realistic approach works too and you have the means to do so. $\endgroup$ – ArtificialSoul Oct 25 '17 at 10:06

You can track anything from orbit if you can infiltrate the target and get a tag on it but the target is too small for any satellite imaging system that I know of to reliably track against the "noise" of waves and storms you get in an active oceanic environment. You could see such a large vessel in port with some of the more advanced GIS satellites that have 10 metre or smaller pixel resolutions but unless they painted it bright orange or similar it wouldn't stand out against large waves etc... well enough to differentiate it reliably. This in no way covers state sponsored spy gear, rumour has it the CIA had equipment that could read the newspapers in Moscow during the Cold War, if that's even remotely true then you could probably track a rubber duck across the Indian Ocean never mind a super-cargo.


Map the Indian Ocean and check out all islands. This will give you some raw data on which to operate.

Can I track cargo ship from the orbit? Or am I out of luck? (And in both cases, why?)

Yes, you can. The cargo ship leaves a distinctive trail that can be picked up by a satellite up to two or three days later depending on weather conditions, and the cloud cover as seen by the ground is not so reliable an indicator; assuming the Illuminati have access to orbital imagery, this leaves them with very narrow and far apart time windows.

Then, the position of the cargo ship is probably either known or knowable through the beacon of your choice.

Even if it is not, following the cargo ship with another ship using radar or hydrophones is not impossible. Also, the ship cannot move instantly; every moment you can't see it, you know it is inside a roughly circular area centered on the last reliable observation and having a radius proportional to the time elapsed and the ship's maximum speed.

By superimposing several such observations, you'll notice that the number of islands within the intersection dwindles until only one is left - and that's your target.

Unless of course the cargo ship also stops at random islands just to throw the scent off, but what are the chances that all those islands are inhabited (or stopping wouldn't make sense) and uninfilterable?


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