A Russian “inspector” satellite appears to be chasing a secret US military satellite in a game of cat and mouse

A mysterious Russian satellite and a classified US military satellite appear to be engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase through space.

A Russian spacecraft named Kosmos-2558 was launched into the same orbital plane as a US satellite named USA-326 in August 2022 and has regularly flown close to the American spacecraft since then.

The behavior of Kosmos-2558 and the lack of an official explanation from Russian space observers suggested that the probe was chasing USA-326. It is at least the third satellite launched by Russia that appears to be an “inspector,” a spacecraft whose purpose is to gather close-up views of another satellite.

The image below shows how much detail an inspector satellite could capture when photographing its target. The Maxar satellite, which normally images Earth, captured this photo as it orbited past a discarded piece of a Japanese missile:

piece of domed spaceship with panels in space in two mirror images, one in black and white, one in gold

Imaged by the Earth-orbiting Maxar satellite of the interstage ring and payload adapter of Japan’s H-IIA rocket, it shows how much detail one satellite could gather by photographing another.

Satellite Image ©2023 Maxar Technologies

“It’s just amazing,” Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Insider of the Maxar image. “And it’s designed for a satellite that’s not designed to look at other satellites. It was designed to look at Earth.”

If Kosmos-2558 appears to be a probe specifically designed to track and possibly collect data on USA-326, then it may be getting even better pictures.

Spaceships have been spying on each other for decades. All you have to do is launch your satellite into a higher orbit than the satellites you want to observe. But Russia appears to be trying a new method of pursuing specific targets, and it’s not clear why.

“It’s really irresponsible,” US Space Command commander Gen. James Dickinson told NBC after the Russian launch of Kosmos-2558. “We see it as being in a similar orbit to one of our high-value assets for the U.S. government.”

The Pentagon has said that USA-326 is designed to support “overhead reconnaissance,” a program of spy satellites to gather intelligence by observing the Earth.

Dickinson added that the US would continue to track the Russian spacecraft.

How can one satellite chase another

The moon sets below the earth's horizon against the blackness of space

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


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

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

Each lap could be a photo opportunity.

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

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

Russia appears to be experimenting with new space pursuit technology

Russia has done this before.

the illustration shows a satellite throwing metal debris high above the ground

An illustration of a satellite disintegrating above Earth.


According to a report by Anatoly Zak, a journalist who covers the Russian space program and runs, another Kosmos satellite exhibited “tracking” behavior after its launch in 2014.

Then, in 2020, a U.S. Space Force general reported that two mysterious Russian satellites were headed toward a U.S. spy satellite.

“It appears to be a program where they are experimenting with this technology,” McDowell said.

The US satellite just got a little higher

In the latest iteration of this orbital hide-and-seek game, a US satellite jumped into a higher orbit, passing further just before Kosmos-2558 was scheduled to fly by again on April 7, according to hobbyist satellite tracker Niko Jansen. .

On April 7, the Russian satellite was supposed to pass its US military target at a distance of about 31 kilometers, Jansen calculated. Instead, the closest it could get was 45 kilometers.

It could have been a maneuver by the US to avoid a close approach by a Russian satellite, Zak reported. But it is unclear whether the US satellite fled.

“That would have been pointless because the Kosmos satellite can also increase its altitude again if it wants to,” Jansen told Insider in an email.

McDowell agrees.

“It is *possible* it was an avoidable burn, but not *possible* in my opinion,” he said in an email.

Instead, Jansen thinks the US satellite was just performing a routine boost to compensate for the altitude it recently lost due to solar activity. Solar eruptions have produced charged particles that wash over the Earth, which can push satellites into lower orbits.

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

#Russian #inspector #satellite #appears #chasing #secret #military #satellite #game #cat #mouse

An artist

Meet ‘Scary Barbie’, the ‘absurd’ cosmic explosion more than 1,000 times brighter than a supernova

illustration of spacecraft with large dish flying in space

NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft is extending its interstellar science mission for another 3 years