A Russian ‘Inspector’ Satellite Stalks US Spy Satellite in Orbit
On November 25, 2019, Russia launched its newest “inspector” satellite, Kosmos 2542, from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, about 800 km north of Moscow.
After launch, Kosmos 2542 maintained an orbit that brought it close to a known American spy satellite every 11 to 12 days. Then, a few days ago Kosmos 2542 performed a series of maneuvers to match the orbital period, position and timing of the U.S. satellite.
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USA 245, a KH-11 named “Keyhole,” is a type of reconnaissance satellite launched by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). USA 245 currently orbits between 171 and 630 miles high in low Earth orbit.
Graduate Student First Broke the News about Kosmos2542
Michael Thompson, a graduate student studying astrodynamics at Purdue University, first broke the news about Kosmos 2542 on Twitter:
Something to potentially watch: Cosmos 2542, a Russian inspection satellite, has recently synchronized its orbit with USA 245, an NRO KH11.
A thread: pic.twitter.com/LqvYiIYBMd
— Michael Thompson (@M_R_Thomp) January 30, 2020
Spy Tradecraft in Space
Russia calls this satellite an “inspector” because Moscow claims Kosmos 2542 is part of its program to test satellite “inspection” technologies; doing so allows Russia to closely observe its own orbital assets.
However, none of the satellite’s recent maneuvers supports this cover story. But the Russians are not alone in fielding this type of technology. In 1990 the United States launched a satellite codenamed “Power” whose job was to approach other satellites for surveillance.
Todd Harrison, the head of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, says “inspector satellites can reveal exactly what kinds of targets on Earth are being surveilled by the spy satellite.”
Could the Russian Satellite Attack?
What’s more, many officials in the Pentagon worry that inspector satellites can be used to “attack” or disable other satellites.
A recent report by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) expresses concern that foreign inspector satellites could include payloads such as kinetic kill vehicles, radiofrequency jammers, lasers, chemical sprayers, high-power microwaves, and robotic mechanisms.
In addition to satellite-based weapons, Russia and China are developing ground-based technologies that can disable U.S. satellites from earth.
Despite America’s recognized military prowess, fighting a war in the blind, without the command and control that satellites afford the U.S., could level the playing field in a future conflict.
Creation of the Space Force Comes at a Crucial Time in History
Perhaps the Space Force, whose first task is to develop an understanding of what a future war in space might actually look like, comes at a crucial time in history.
Our ability to evaluate and neutralize inspector satellites like Kosmos 2542, as well as other space-based threats, will ensure that an American response to adversaries like Russia and China is unrestrained.
After all, successful armies from antiquity to the present have always sought the high ground. Today, space is the high ground; we give it up at our peril.