The two satellites are mighty close to one another
A Russian satellite has positioned itself uncomfortably close to an American spy satellite in orbit around Earth, leading space trackers to speculate that the foreign vehicle is doing some spying of its own.
The Russian spacecraft is meant to inspect other satellites, and experts in the space community believe it may now be keeping a watchful eye on the secretive US vehicle. But the motivation behind this in-space stalking is still unknown.
All January, amateur satellite trackers have been keeping tabs on the weird behavior of this Russian probe, known as Kosmos 2542. Launched in November of last year, Kosmos 2542 has been orbiting in the same plane as a satellite operated by the National Reconnaissance Office called USA 245, which has been in space since 2013.
The NRO is a military agency that specializes in surveillance and operates a large swath of classified satellites that are thought to spy on places all over the world — so it’s entirely possible USA 245 is doing something the US might want to keep secret. The fact that the two satellites are in the same plane isn’t enough to raise alarm though, as the satellites only passed close by each other every 10 days or so.
“[It] is suspicious, but doesn’t prove anything, as there are a lot of different satellites in that plane,” Michael Thompson, a graduate teaching assistant at Purdue University specializing in satellites and astrodynamics, writes in an email to The Verge.
Kosmos 2542 attracted particular attention last week when it performed a series of maneuvers, using its onboard thrusters to get closer to USA 245. Now, Kosmos 2542 is nearby USA 245 all the time. Thompson writes that the Russian satellite has been in constant view of its US target for nearly two weeks now. The two satellites range between 150 to 300 kilometers apart at any given time, which essentially makes them neighbors in the vast area of low Earth orbit. Kosmos 2542 is slowly drifting away, but it will be within a direct line of sight of USA 245 for weeks or even months, according to Thompson. (That’s unless Russia decides to move it again.)
Thompson revealed all this info in a Twitter thread, suggesting that Kosmos 2542 is doing some inspection of one of America’s assets. And it’s not a completely unexpected conclusion to make. Before Russia launched the satellite, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the spacecraft was, indeed, designed to inspect other satellites in space, according to the site Russian Space Web, which follows Russia’s space industry. Most assumed that it would be inspecting other Russian spacecraft, not classified spy satellites operated by the US.
Of course, we ultimately don’t know the real reason Kosmos 2542 made those maneuvers. But most experts say there’s really only one good explanation: one satellite is stalking the other.
“The conclusion that it’s shadowing the NRO satellite is speculation but one that’s informed by the orbital data,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, writes in an email to The Verge. “Right now it’s the most likely explanation we have for why the Russian satellite has been maneuvering the way it has and why it’s in that orbit.”
It’s not clear what happens next. Chances are probably good no harm is going to come to the US satellite, since Russia claims its probe is just meant for inspection. However, concerns have been raised about what satellites could do to one another in space if they got close enough. The Defense Department has sounded the alarm about satellites ramming into other satellites, spraying them with chemicals, or shooting them with lasers in order to destroy them. That kind of in-space warfare hasn’t quite happened yet, but it’s certainly on the radar of the US government.
Plus, there isn’t a set protocol about what to do when another country’s satellite gets too friendly. “One of the big concerns is that we don’t have any agreed rules or norms about how these close approaches should be done,” says Weeden. “That means an increased risk someone might get the wrong perception about what’s going on, perhaps even mistaking it for an attack.”
It’s not as if this kind of behavior is completely novel, though. Weeden noted that both Russia and China have done close inspections of their own satellites in the past. And in 2015, a Russian satellite known as Luch put itself next to two US communications satellites operated by the company Intelsat, and stayed there for five months before moving. On the flip side, the US is also guilty of this practice, says Weeden. The American military operates a series of satellites through its Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), which are tasked with approaching and checking out satellites operated by other countries.
For now, Thompson says he’ll be continuing to monitor the whereabouts of Kosmos 2542. The details of the satellite’s path are available on space-track.org, a website that publishes tracking data collected by the US Air Force on as many satellites and pieces of debris in orbit as possible. He notes that he’s definitely not the only one watching, either. “Since the orbits for these Russian satellites are public info, anyone who wants to can watch for it, and I know that plenty of people in our community are,” says Thompson.
Quelle: The Verge
A Russian "Inspector" Spacecraft Now Appears To Be Shadowing An American Spy Satellite
The Russian satellite recently moved into a new position where it has an especially good view of a US KH-11 spy satellite.
Publicly available data suggests that a Russian inspector satellite has shifted its position in orbit to bring it relatively close to a U.S. KH-11 spy satellite. Russia has a number of what it calls "space apparatus inspectors" in orbit, which the U.S. government and others warn the Kremlin could use to gather intelligence on other satellites or function as "killer satellites," using various means to damage, disable, or destroy those targets.
On Jan. 30, 2020, Michael Thompson, a graduate student at Purdue University focusing on astrodynamics, posted a detailed thread on Twitter about the Russian inspector satellite Cosmos 2542, also written Kosmos 2542, appearing to synchronize its orbit with a U.S. satellite known as USA 245, which is understood be one of the National Reconnaissance Office's KH-11 image gathering spy satellites. Russia launched this particular satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Nov. 25, 2019, according to Space-Track.org, a U.S. government website that provides public data on space launches from the U.S. military's Combined Space Operations Center and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command. This is just one of a number of space apparatus inspectors and other curious satellites that the Kremlin has put into orbit over the past decade.
"This is all circumstantial evidence, but there are a hell of a lot of circumstances that make it look like a known Russian inspection satellite is currently inspecting a known US spy satellite," Thompson wrote. "A pretty thorough look of the satellite catalog can't produce another potential target that looks as good as this in terms of the orbits and viewing geometry."
Starting on Jan. 20, 2020, Cosmos 2542 had conducted a series of maneuvers to change its position and timing to match USA 245's "orbital period." The Russian satellite had previously been circling the planet in the same plane as its American counterpart, Thompson explained, but in such a way that the two only came relatively close to each other once every 11 to 12 days.
"Note that any two satellites in the same plane with offset periods will have passes like this at some regular cadence," Thomspon added. "It's enough to raise suspicion, but not prove anything."
However, how Cosmos 2542 is orbiting now means that it now has a "consistent view" of USA 245. "As I'm typing this, that offset distance shifts between 150 and 300km depending on the location in the orbit," according to Thompson.
A spacing of 150 to 300 kilometers, or between 93 and just short of 186 and a half miles, may not seem "close" by terrestrial standards, but it is for objects circling Earth in the vacuum of space at speeds of thousands of miles per hour. "The relative orbit is actually pretty cleverly designed, where Cosmos 2542 can observe one side of the KH11 when both satellites first come into sunlight, and by the time they enter eclipse, it has migrated to the other side," Thompson Tweeted, meaning that the Russian satellite has the potential opportunity to observe both sides of USA 245.
Cosmos 2542 had already been involved in other curious activities since its launch in November 2019. On Dec. 6, 2019, Russia announced that it had deployed another smaller satellite, dubbed Cosmos 2543, while in orbit. Nico Janssen, another satellite observer, noted that USA 245 had shifted its own orbit between Dec. 9 and Dec. 10, possibly to prevent a collision with Cosmos 2543, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com. Janssen had also noted that Cosmos 2542 had synchronized its orbit with the American spy satellite.
It's still unclear what, if anything, in particular, Cosmos 2542 might actually be doing in this new orbit. One possibility is that it could be using onboard systems, such as cameras or other sensors, to gather information about the KH-11, the capabilities of which are highly classified. The Russian Ministry of Defense has said that the satellites exact capabilities are classified, but Interfaxreported that its cameras are also capable of Earth imaging, in addition to monitoring other satellites in the inspector role, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com.
Thompson questioned the intelligence value of visually observing the exterior of the American satellite, pointing out that publicly available information has already allowed for good estimates as to the basic imaging capabilities of these spy satellites, the first variations of which entered service in the 1970s. Of course, USA 245 was last of the most modern KH-11 Block IV satellites, also known as the Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System, to be launched and there may still be value in examining it externally. It may also be possible to gather electronic or signals intelligence data that could be of additional value.
Beyond that, the ability of Cosmos 2542 to get into this position at all is notable and is exactly the kind of orbital maneuvering that the U.S. government had pointed to in the past evidence of potential "killer satellites." A highly maneuverable, but small satellite could possibly get close enough to disrupt the operation of, disable, or destroy another object in space using a variety of means, ranging from electronic warfare jammers to directed energy weapons, such as a laser.
When it comes to spy satellites, it might be possible to just spray chemicals or other materials that blind or otherwise damage the lenses on their cameras. A low power laser could also blind optics persistantly if the attack satellite were to be able to get in a good position. A killer satellite could also just simply smash into its intended target to try to damage or destroy it.
Russia insists that its inspector satellites are only in orbit for their ostensible mission of being available to get close to the country's other space-based systems and examine them if they break down or otherwise malfunction. However, Thompson notes that the only other satellites in this particular plane are Cosmos 2523, Cosmos 2543, and the Russian commercial remote sensing satellite Resurs-P1. Cosmos 2523 is another inspector satellite. Cosmos 2523 is also part of a group of Russian satellites that observers have previously watched perform various curious maneuvers back in 2018, as well.
Whatever Cosmos 2542 is or isn't doing, its present position is clearly deliberate and it is hard to see how it would not be related in some way to the position of USA 245. It is worth noting that this is hardly the first time similar confluences in orbit have occurred and that observers have spotted U.S. satellites possibly examining foreign satellites in the past, as well.
Russia is known to be interested in anti-satellite capacities and has developed or is developing a number of terrestrial anti-satellite weapons, including ground-based and air-launched interceptors, too. China is pursuing similar developments, as well. The appearance of Cosmos 2542 in its new orbit also comes as the U.S. military is very publicly working to address concerns about the increasing vulnerability of various space-based systems that it relies on heavily.
These space-based capabilities range from space-based early-warning systemsto intelligence gathering platforms such as the KH-11 to satellites supporting navigation and communications, all of which would absolutely critical in any potential future conflict. The most obvious expression of this recent push is the creation of U.S. Space Force, an entirely new branch of the U.S. military to focus on American military activities in and related to space, as well as the procurement of satellites and other related systems and infrastructure.
One of Space Force's immediate tasks will be to simply craft an understanding of what a future war in space might actually look like, which is an ever-increasingly realistic prospect, as The War Zone has highlighted on numerous occasions in the past. Despite this reality, basic definitions of what a conflict in space might entail and how the U.S. might act in response, including possible shows of force or direct retaliation, significant issues that The War Zone has also previously examined in-depth.
"There may come a point where we demonstrate some of our capabilities so that our adversaries understand they cannot deny us the use of space without consequence," then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson had said at the Space Foundation’s 35th annual Space Symposium in 2019. It remains unclear exactly what she meant, but her comments certainly indicated an increasingly tense environment for the U.S. military in space.
"The central point is that we need a cadre of people who grow up and spend their whole careers learning and thinking: 'how we dogfight in space,'" Air Force Major General Clinton Crosier, the Deputy to the service's Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements, said at RAND Corporation think tank event in 2019. "Our adversaries have things on orbit that are looking at ways to do harm to our systems."
U.S. military officials and politicians have also called for the declassification of more information about U.S. military space capabilities, which could potentially help explain what options may be available to deter or respond to potential threats in orbit. "In many cases in the Department [of Defense], we’re just so overclassified it’s ridiculous, just unbelievably ridiculous," U.S. Air Force General John Hyten, the present Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a recent Air Force Association gathering, speaking broadly about classification issues, according to Defense News.
How to react to the activities of foreign satellites, such as Cosmos 2542, where it may not be clear what the threat is, or if there even is one, is exactly the kind of issue that the U.S. military, and the new Space Force, in particular, will only increasingly be faced with as time goes on.
Russian spacecraft following US spy satellite in ‘disturbing’ manner, Space Force general says
- The leader of the U.S. Space Force confirmed that a pair of Russian spacecraft have come very close to a U.S. spy satellite, saying that the foreign satellites are showing “unusual and disturbing behavior.”
- General John Raymond called out Russia for developing technologies that could harm U.S. systems in space.
- “The United States finds these recent activities to be concerning and do not reflect the behavior of a responsible spacefaring nation,” Raymond said.
The leader of the United States Space Force on Monday confirmed reports that a pair of Russian spacecraft have come very close to a U.S. spy satellite, saying that foreign satellites are showing “unusual and disturbing behavior.”
“Last November the Russian government launched a satellite that subsequently released a second satellite. These satellites have been actively maneuvering near a U.S. government satellite ... which the Russian government characterized as ‘inspector satellites,’” U.S. General John Raymond said in a statement to CNBC.
The extraordinary situation was noted by amateur spacecraft trackers last month, who pointed out that Russian satellite Kosmos 2542 had slowly made its way into the same area in orbit as USA 245 – a satellite the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) operates. The NRO is an agency within the Department of Defense and one of the five major
Kosmos 2542 was not initially near USA 245. But, two weeks after launch, the Russian satellite split into two different objects. By the middle of January, Kosmos 2542 and Kosmos 2543 had moved in orbit and were closing in on USA 245. The Russian spacecraft were as close as 300 kilometers from USA 245, in clear view of the U.S. satellite. Additionally, the two Russian objects were able to see multiple sides of USA 245 due to the nature of their orbits – causing satellite trackers to speculate that Kosmos 2542 and Kosmos 2543 were indeed inspecting USA 245.
Gen. Raymond, recently appointed as the head of the U.S. Space Force, compared the recent activities to Russian satellite tests in 2017. Those satellites “exhibited characteristics of a weapon,” Raymond said, because one of the spacecraft fired “a high-speed projectile into space.”
He specifically called out Russia for developing technologies that could harm U.S. systems in space, saying the recent maneuvers could “create a dangerous situation in space.”
“The United States finds these recent activities to be concerning and do not reflect the behavior of a responsible spacefaring nation,” Raymond said.
US Space Force says Russian satellites are following American satellite
(CNN) — Russian satellites have been exhibiting the "unusual and disturbing behavior" of following a US satellite in orbit, according to the commander of the Space Force, the newest military service.
"Last November the Russian government launched a satellite that subsequently released a second satellite," US Space Command Commander and the Space Force's Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond said in a statement Monday.
"These satellites have been actively maneuvering near a U.S. government satellite and behaving similar to another set of satellites that Russia deployed in 2017, and which the Russian government characterized as 'inspector satellites.' "
Raymond's comments mark the first substantive statement from the Space Force and come as the US has become increasingly concerned about what adversaries are doing in space -- one of the reasons why the US launched the new military branch, the first new military service since 1947, in December. The Trump administration requested $18 billion for the Space Force and other space activities on Monday as part of its Pentagon budget.
TIME Magazine first reported the announcement.
The Russian satellite in question released a second satellite in December, according to the state-run TASS news agency.
"The purpose of the experiment is to continue work on assessing the technical condition of domestic satellites," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement at the time.
Raymond said Monday that Russia's recent actions place the county among nations that "have turned space into a warfighting domain."
"Similar activities in any other domain would be interpreted as potentially threatening behavior," Raymond said. "This is unusual and disturbing behavior and has the potential to create a dangerous situation in space. The United States finds these recent activities to be concerning and do not reflect the behavior of a responsible spacefaring nation."
Raymond also noted that when the Russian satellites "exhibited characteristics of a weapon when one of those satellites released a high-speed projectile into space" after being deployed in 2017, the United States raised the issue during the United Nations Conference on Disarmament the following year.
Yleem D.S. Poblete, the assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, told the conference how a 2017 Russian satellite's "behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities."
"What Russia tells us diplomatically and publicly may be the opposite of what it intends to do with that satellite," she said.
Exclusive: Strange Russian Spacecraft Shadowing U.S. Spy Satellite, General Says