Russia has allegedly launched a new stalking satellite to eavesdrop on U.S. space assets
- A new Russian satellite has been launched and appears to be heading toward a U.S. military satellite.
- Both the U.S. and Russian satellites have unknown capabilities and purposes.
- Whatever the case, it appears both satellites will come into close contact at some point on August 4th, 2022.
In covert space operations news, a strange Russian satellite that is apparently intended to eavesdrop on U.S. military satellites in orbit has just been launched. At its current trajectory, it should be able to close in on its target sometime on August 4th, 2022.
Before its launch, the new Russian spacecraft was rumored to be an "inspector" satellite and is thought to be specifically designed to stalk other satellites to get a closer look. The espionage satellite, which is expected to be given the name Kosmos 2558, was put into the same orbit as the USA 326 military satellite, which was launched in February.
The Russian satellite was launched at a time when the American satellite was traveling above the Russian spaceport of Plesetsk, according to Marco Langbroek, an astrodynamics lecturer at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, who followed the two satellites' orbital planes.
“The two orbits are very close, the main difference being a relatively small difference of a few tens of kilometers in orbital altitude,” Langbroek told Gizmodo in an interview. “So that is a very clear indication.”
#Soyuzhttps://t.co/kXO7GjK471— Anatoly Zak (@RussianSpaceWeb) ) August 1, 2022
The U.S. satellite is moving in a 97.4-degree inclined Sun-synchronous orbit, while the Russian satellite is moving in a 97.25-degree inclined orbit, explained Langbroek. The Russian satellite might also maneuver its orbit within the next few days to move even closer to its U.S. counterpart.
“If one or both of them do not maneuver in the meantime, Kosmos 2558 will pass USA 326 at a distance of approximately 75 kilometers (46 miles) on August 4th, near 14:47 UTC [10:47 a.m. ET],” Langbroek said.
Satellite stalking is not exactly something new
According to experts like Langbroek, this type of Russian satellite has already been used to stalk satellites in orbit.
“Presumably, it has some kind of sensor system that’s optimized to observe other satellites, rather than the sort of usual observing satellite that’s optimized to take pictures of the ground,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also told Gizmodo. “We don’t know that for sure, we’re just inferring that from how it’s behaving.”
The Russian launch today was indeed at 20:25 UTC, right at the moment the USA 326 orbital plane passed over Plesetsk (i.e. the launch was into the orbital plane of USA 326):https://t.co/UFeIuewfTq— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) ) August 1, 2022
This new satellite also appears to have a maneuvering engine system, which will allow it to adjust its orbit in various ways, explained McDowell. This would be very handy if the new Russian satellite is, indeed, some form of espionage satellite.
If the rumors are true, then the next logical question is, why has the USA 326 been singled out as its victim?
One reason is that this is a military satellite with a non-publically disclosed mission. This makes it mysterious, which makes it even more alluring for Russia.
“It’s a new model, and it’s of interest because we don’t know much about it,” McDowell explained. “I want to know, and I’m sure the Russians have the exact same reaction,” he added.
Once in position, and by hovering next to it in space, the Russian satellite should be able to grab some close-in images of the satellite to better ascertain what its purpose might be.
The United States has occasionally been the perpetrator, and victim, of space stalking in the past. In 2020, USA 245, an electro-optical espionage satellite in low Earth orbit, was pursued by another Russian satellite, Kosmos 2542.
USA 276, a secret U.S. military satellite, approached the International Space Station in June 2017 at a close range of around 4 miles (6.4 kilometers). A U.S. satellite that was allegedly also utilized for space espionage was found earlier in 1998 by amateurs.
All very sinister, but such activities are not actually illegal.
“Even if the satellite stays 100 miles away from the U.S. satellite, the U.S. government will get all pissy about it and complain,” McDowell said. “But they don’t really have a right to complain because there’s no rule against it.” That is unless a satellite gets dangerously close to another satellite, he explained, with a potential risk of collision. “At what point are you in another satellite’s personal space? That’s the question,” McDowell added.
Over the next few days, Langbroek will follow the two satellites in orbit to determine whether they come dangerously close to Earth. The American satellite could move out of the way of the Russian satellite, or it may remain stationary and put up with the unwelcome attention.