A Russian ‘observer’ satellite appears to be chasing a secret US military satellite in a cat-and-mouse game

A Russian 'observer' satellite appears to be chasing a secret US military satellite in a cat-and-mouse game

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

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

The behavior of Kosmos-2558 and the lack of a formal explanation from Russia have led space observers to believe that the probe is chasing USA-326. It is at least the third satellite that Russia has launched that appears to be an “observer” — a spacecraft that aims to collect data from up close on another satellite.

The image below shows how much detail the Inspector satellite can capture when photographing its target. A Maxar satellite, which normally takes images of the Earth, took this photo as it flew past a discarded piece of a Japanese rocket in orbit:

A dome-shaped piece of spaceship with panels in space in two mirror images, one black and white the other gold.

The inter-stage ring and payload adapter from a Japanese H-IIA rocket, imaged by the Maxar satellite in Earth orbit, shows how much detail one satellite can gather from another photograph.

Satellite Image ©2023 Maxor Technologies

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

If Cosmos-2558 appears to be an observer, specifically designed to collect data on the stalk and perhaps USA-326, it may be getting better images.

Spacecraft 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 new methods of pursuing specific targets, and it’s not clear why.

“It’s really irresponsible behavior,” US Space Command commander General James H. Dickinson told NBC News after Russia launched Cosmos-2558. “We see it as one of our high-value assets for the U.S. government in the same orbit.”

The Pentagon has said USA-326 is to support “overhead reconnaissance” — a spy satellite program to gather intelligence by observing the Earth.

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

How can one satellite collide with another?

The moon sets below 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 are orbiting Earth in the same plane, but at different speeds, allowing Kosmos-2558 to regularly pass under its US target.

“If you imagine two athletes are running around a track on slightly different lanes of the track, and one is faster than the other, often one will overtake the other and pass closely,” McDowell explained.

Every lap can be a photo opportunity.

According to McDowell’s observations, Cosmos-2558 made four close passes of USA-326 in March. A 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 a detailed image.

“I see it as gentle rather than aggressive,” McDowell said.

Russia appears to be experimenting with new space stacking technology

Russia has done this before.

Image shows satellite shading bits of metal debris high above Earth

An example of a satellite crashing over the earth.


Another Cosmos satellite showed “stacking” behavior after launch in 2014 — but it was chasing its own rocket stage, not a rival spacecraft, according to Anatoly Zak, a journalist who covers Russia’s space program and runs According to the report.

Then, in 2020, a US Space Force general reported that two mysterious Russian satellites were tailing a US spy satellite.

“It seems to be a program that they’re experimenting with this technology,” McDowell said.

U.S. The satellite pushed itself a little higher

According to hobby satellite tracker Niko Janssen, the US satellite jumped into a higher orbit just before Cosmos-2558 was scheduled to make another close pass on April 7. .

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

This could be a maneuver by the US to avoid a close approach of a Russian satellite, Zack reported. But it is not clear that the US satellite was fleeing.

“That would have been useless, because even a cosmos satellite could raise its altitude again, if it wanted to,” Janssen told Insider in an email.

McDowell agrees.

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

Instead, Jensen believes that the US satellite was simply doing a regular boost to compensate for altitude recently lost due to solar activity. Explosions on the Sun shower Earth with charged particles, which can push satellites into lower orbits.

Between solar and orbital spies, “satellites are very sensitive,” Jensen said.

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