A Russian satellite tracks U.S. military reconnaissance satellite in orbit
According to the official version of the Russian side, a satellite called Cosmos 2542 is part of its program for testing technologies for checking satellites in orbit, a program that will allow Russia to closely monitor the state of its own orbital vehicles.
On January 20, something strange happened in orbit. The Russian satellite unexpectedly made several maneuvers and became close to the American reconnaissance satellite in such a way that now it follows on its heels. Now these two devices are separated by only 300 kilometers – this is a very close distance by the standards of space. Although we do not know for sure what exactly is happening, such actions by the Russian satellite indicate that it is monitoring the American device – and the United States can do almost nothing with this.
According to the official version of the Russian side, a satellite called Cosmos 2542 is part of its program for testing technologies for checking satellites in orbit, a program that will allow Russia to closely monitor the state of its own orbital vehicles. It is assumed that the main satellite should launch an additional mini-satellite not far from itself, and then approach it in order to obtain its images.
However, not one of the maneuvers made recently by Cosmos 2542 and its mini-satellite confirms this Russian legend. Michael Thompson, a graduate student in astrodynamics at Purdue University, who was the first to post new data on Space 2542 on Twitter, notes that the satellite’s synchronization with the US intelligence satellite USA 245 (which rotates between 280 and 1000 kilometers) in low Earth orbit) occurred very rapidly, and that the mini-satellite, at first glance, does not perform any significant function.
Although the evidence is still indirect, Thomas Roberts, a former employee of the aerospace systems security department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes the Cosmos 2542 follows USA 245 to spy on him. “There are a lot of vehicles in low Earth orbit, but spending valuable fuel in such a way as to occupy an ideal position and keep another satellite in sight — in my opinion, this is beyond the acceptable range,” he said. “This is no coincidence.”
Todd Harrison, head of the aerospace systems security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, claims that inspection satellites can transmit accurate data about exactly what targets spy satellites are monitoring on Earth. We don’t know what Cosmos 2542 is capable of, but, according to Harrison, it can determine the aperture and resolution of cameras installed on the USA 245 satellite. If it is equipped with a radio frequency sensor, it can listen to weak signals coming from USA 245 and determine exactly what processes are taking place on board when he performs certain tasks or takes pictures.
In fact, Russia has regularly resorted to such tricks for about 10 years. The most famous example was the Russian satellite “Luch”, which approached many times and stayed in close proximity to satellites of other countries in geostationary orbit, causing serious alarm among the international community.
However, not only Russians perform such tricks. Brian Weeden, an expert on space policy at the Secure World Foundation, claims that the first example of such satellites for inspection was an American satellite, code-named Power, launched in 1990 and whose existence the US government had not recognized. Apparently, his task was to approach the other satellites in geostationary orbit and to monitor them. A series of satellites launched by China, starting with the launch of the SJ-12 in 2010, indicates that the Chinese authorities are also implementing a similar program.
“In this sense, Russia is not unique,” says Widen. “This does not happen every day, but these are the means that China, the US and other countries have been experiencing for some time.”
Meanwhile, no rules regarding this kind of approximation exist yet, so Russia does not violate anything. “You can get as close as you want, provided you don’t touch or interfere with other satellites,” says Widen. The United States can do almost nothing but move its satellite to another orbital position. However, even small maneuvers will entail unplanned consumption of valuable fuel. And the Russian satellite can follow the American, taking a different position.
This incident is undoubtedly worrisome, but Roberts hopes that discussions and responses will drown out alarmist forecasts and fears. “We need to discuss these things properly,” he says. “The behavior may seem suspicious, but not have any malicious intent under it.”