A Russian ‘Inspector’ Satellite Is Chasing an American Spy Satellite Across the Sky
A Russian satellite is stalking a secret US spy satellite and may have passed suspiciously close to the classified American ship Thursday, Aug. 4.
The Russian satellite — dubbed Kosmos 2558 by satellite watchers — launched on Monday from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, 500 miles north of Moscow, just as a new US spy satellite — USA 326 — passed overhead. The Russian ship blasted off directly into the same orbital plane as USA 326 and has been closing in on the American satellite since.
In a blog post, Marco Langbroek, who specializes in spy satellite research and lectures at Delft Technical University, said the Russian satellite’s orbit was a giveaway of its intention.
“[Kosmos 2558] was launched into virtually the same orbit as USA 326, launching right at the moment that the orbit of USA 326 passed over Plesetsk,” Langbroek told Coffee or Die Magazine. “That is too much of a coincidence.”
Langbroek suspects Kosmos 2558 is an “inspector” satellite — or a spy satellite designed to spy on other spy satellites. At its closest, Langbroek said, Kosmos 2558 would be closer than 50 miles away from USA 326 — a virtual fly-by in space terms. One of the satellites could have maneuvered out of the close encounter in the hours beforehand, but they hadn’t by mid-Wednesday, Langbroek told Coffee or Die.
But researchers will only be able to tell what happened once their decentralized network of independent space observers get their eyes on USA 326 again. “Unfortunately, I was clouded out last night (and looks like I will be tonight as well), but I hope one of our other observers might capture it,” Langbroek said.
A spokesperson for US Space Command told Coffee or Die Magazine that officials there would not be releasing analysis of the fly-by.
Assuming Kosmos 2558 is equipped with a powerful camera, it will likely get very detailed images of its US quarry from within 50 miles.
For comparison, USA 326 does its Earth-facing spying from about 280 miles above the surface, and its cameras and equipment must contend distortion caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. Still, experts believe modern American spy satellites — known as KH-11s or KH-12s — can see objects on the ground as small as 10 centimeters across under optimal conditions.
But shooting in the void of space, Kosmos 2558’s view of USA 326 will be crystal clear.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, agreed that the Russian satellite’s path seemed deliberately chosen. He also told Coffee or Die Magazine, “[Kosmos 2558] has several things in common with another Russian inspector satellite launched in 2019 (same launch vehicle, same manufacturer, same design).”
In early 2020, Russian satellite Kosmos 2542 and subsatellite 2543 came suspiciously close to American spy satellite USA 245. At the time, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the highest-ranking military leader in the Space Force, told Time, “We view this behavior as unusual and disturbing. It has the potential to create a dangerous situation in space.”
But McDowell doesn’t think today’s close pass is a big deal. “I don’t think it actually matters a lot, but the US Defense Department is likely to get all huffy about it,” he said.
“[The US government doesn’t] really have a right to complain because there’s no rule against it,” McDowell told Gizmodo. If the Russian satellite risks collision, then that’s different. “At what point are you in another satellite’s personal space? That’s the question,” he said.
A Space-X Falcon 9 rocket launched USA 326 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Feb. 2, 2022.
Langbroek said little else was known about the US satellite. “But from the type of orbit it is in and its orbit relative to other satellites we believe to be optical reconnaissance satellites, we are quite certain that it is an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite,” he said. These satellites take detailed images of Earth.
Spy satellites like USA 326 observe Earth to collect information for intelligence and military purposes. The National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, is the agency within the Department of Defense that operates America’s spy satellites. Though the designs of spy satellites have always been among the most closely guarded of all military secrets, modern ones are thought to be built as giant telescopes that, rather than peering into space, face back toward Earth, with mirrors more than 2 meters wide, on par with the power of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Still, images from the secret spy machines sometimes surface.
President Donald J. Trump famously tweeted a picture from a US spy satellite — which he appeared to capture on a phone camera from a printed copy — in 2019 after it snapped images of the aftermath of an Iranian missile that exploded on a launchpad.