June 19, 2024

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A Russian satellite is chasing secret US military satellites

A Russian satellite is chasing secret US military satellites

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft ascends after launch, as seen from the International Space Station.
NASA/Christina Koch

A mysterious Russian satellite and a secret US military satellite seem to be engaging in a cat-and-mouse chase through space.

The Russian spacecraft, called Kosmos-2558, was launched in the same orbital plane as the American satellite, which was named USA-326in August 2022, and since then it has regularly passed close to the US spacecraft.

Kosmos-2558’s behavior, and the lack of an official explanation from Russia, has led space watchers to believe the probe is chasing USA-326. It’s at least the third satellite launched by Russia that appears to be an “inspector” – a spacecraft intended to collect close-up data on another satellite.

The image below shows how much detail an inspector satellite might be able to pick up when photographing its target. The Maxar satellite, which usually images Earth, captured this image as it passed through a discarded piece of a Japanese rocket in orbit:

A loop between stages and a payload transducer from a Japanese H-IIA rocket, imaged in Earth orbit by a Maxar satellite, shows just how much detail one satellite can gather by imaging another.
Satellite image © 2023 Maxar Technologies

“This is amazing,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Insider of the Maxar image. “And this is for a satellite that is not designed to look at other satellites. It is designed to look at Earth.”

If Kosmos-2558 is the inspector it appears to be specifically designed to stalk and possibly collect data on USA-326, it’s probably getting better pictures.

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Spacecraft have spied on each other for decades. All you have to do is launch your satellite into a higher orbit than the satellites you want to monitor. But Russia appears to be trying a new tactic to pursue certain targets, and it is not clear why.

“This is really irresponsible behavior,” said General James H. Dickinson, commander of the US Space Command. NBC News After Russia launched Cosmos 2558. “We see it in a similar orbit as one of our highly valued US government assets.”

The Pentagon said the goal of USA-326 is to support “aerial reconnaissance” — a spy satellite program to gather intelligence through ground observation.

Dickinson added that the United States will continue to track the Russian spacecraft.

How can one satellite chase another?

The Moon sets below Earth’s horizon, as seen from the International Space Station in orbit.

The two satellites orbit Earth in the same plane, but at different speeds, allowing Kosmos-2558 to pass regularly under its American target.

“If you imagine two athletes running around a track on slightly different lanes of the track, and one is faster than the other, every now and then one of them runs over the other and passes close,” McDowell explained.

Every lap can be a photo opportunity.

According to McDowell’s observations, Kosmos-2558 made four close passes at USA-326 in March. The Russian satellite usually passes within about 50 kilometers (31 miles) of its American target — not close enough to risk a collision, but close enough to likely get detailed images.

“I see him as curious, not aggressive,” McDowell said.

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Russia appears to be testing a new space stalking technique

Russia has done this before.

Illustration of a satellite crashing into Earth.

Another Kosmos satellite showed “chasing” behavior after its launch in 2014 — but it was chasing its own rocket stage, not an enemy spacecraft, according to reports By Anatoly Zak, journalist who covers Russia’s space program and runs RussianSpaceWeb.com.

Then, in 2020, a general in the US Space Force mentioned That two mysterious Russian satellites were trailing an American spy satellite.

“It looks like a program they’re testing with this technology,” McDowell said.

The American satellite has pushed itself up a bit

In the latest twist in this orbital game of hide-and-seek, a US satellite hopped into a higher orbit, climbing away before Cosmos 2558 passed close again on April 7, according to hobby satellite tracker Niko Jansen. .

The Russian satellite was set to pass its US military target at a distance of about 31 kilometers on April 7, Jansen calculated. Instead, the closest he could get was 45 kilometers away.

This could have been a maneuver conducted by the United States to evade the close approach of the Russian satellite Zack mentioned. But it is not clear if the American satellite is getting away.

“That would have been useless, because the Kosmos satellite could also increase its altitude again, if it wished,” Jansen told Insider in an email.

McDowell agrees.

“It is possible that this was a dodgy burn but not *likely* in my current opinion,” he said in a follow-up email.

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Instead, Jansen believes the US satellite was just performing a routine boost to make up for the height it had recently lost due to solar activity. Volcanic eruptions on the Sun have sent charged particles drifting above the Earth, which can propel satellites into lower orbits.

Between the sun and orbiting spies, “satellites are very vulnerable,” Jansen said.