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Satellite spots China's first aircraft carrier at sea

This satellite image provided by the the DigitalGlobe Analysis Center shows the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi Lang (Varyag) sailing in the Yellow Sea. The picture was acquired Dec. 8 by DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite.DigitalGlobe / AP

A commercial satellite operator says it has captured a rare image of China's first aircraft carrier as it sailed through the Yellow Sea, after going through an exercise that's the 21st-century equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.

DigitalGlobe said the aircraft carrier showed up on a cloud-filled picture snapped on Dec. 8 by its polar-orbiting QuickBird satellite from a height of 280 miles (450 kilometers). An analyst spotted the ship while checking the image on Tuesday, said Stephen Wood, the director of the company's analysis center.

"There is something that is always indispensable about having people involved," Wood told me. The ship was identified "using a combination of the satellite imagery plus open-source material on the Internet, and geography," he said, but "at the end of the day, it still comes down to a person."

Experts have been hoping for months to get a glimpse of the aircraft carrier at sea. The former Soviet Union started building the ship, originally known as the Varyag, but never finished it. After the Soviet breakup, the Varyag ended up in the hands of the Ukrainian government. The ship was auctioned off to the Chinese in 1998. Since then, the Varyag, which has reportedly been rechristened the Shi Lang, has been under refurbishment for sea service.

"This is a ship and a story that has had legs for many years," Wood said.

Don't feel bad if you can't spot the aircraft carrier in this wide-field version of the satellite image from QuickBird. It's in the very center of the picture.DigitalGlobe

DigitalGlobe said this picture was taken during the carrier's second sea trial, approximately 62 miles (100 kilometers) south-southeast of the port of Dalian. Wood said the picture indicates that the ship is "moving at a decent rate of speed, which would be expected in the middle of the ocean." The U.S. military could no doubt glean more information about the Shi Lang's status, from QuickBird's pictures as well as from classified, higher-resolution imagery.

China says the Shi Lang will be used for research and training, and the project is thought to be part of the country's strategy to expand its presence as a naval power. The Chinese military is expected to build more copies of the ship in coming years. In fact, sources told Reuters in July that a second aircraft carrier was under construction.

"China's next moves have to be watched carefully, or there eventually could be a negative impact on maritime safety in Asia," Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor at Japan's Tokai University, told Reuters at the time.

QuickBird's view of the Shi Lang serves as today's offering from the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features an image of Earth from space every day from now until Christmas. Here are the past offerings in the series:

Update for 10:45 p.m. ET: The Associated Press' Dan Elliott got in touch with a Pentagon spokeswoman, Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, who said the progress made by the Chinese on the aircraft carrier was in line with the U.S. military's expectations. A Defense Department report to Congress said the carrier could become operationally available to China's navy by the end of next year, but without aircraft. "From that point, it will take several additional years before the carrier has an operationally viable air group," Hull-Ryde told Elliott in an email.

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