A Russian Spy Satellite Is Stalking a U.S. Military Satellite, And the Pentagon Is NOT Happy

Photo credit: SpaceX
Photo credit: SpaceX
  • On August 1, Russia launched a new spy spacecraft, likely to keep tabs on an American spy satellite.

  • The orbits of the two spacecraft remain relatively close and the Russian version can change orbit as needed.

  • Space stalking isn’t new, nor is it limited to the Russians.

A new Russian satellite, dubbed Kosmos 2558, took a ride on a Russian Soyuz-2.1v rocket on August 1, apparently destined for life as a spy satellite. Russia sent the satellite into the same orbital plane as USA 326, a classified American military satellite that launched into low-Earth orbit earlier this year via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. That’s probably not a coincidence, and needless to say, the Pentagon is NOT happy.

According to a February 2 press release from the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), USA 326 is a “national security payload ... designed, built, and operated by the NRO to support its overhead reconnaissance mission.” And it looks like Russia wants a closer look.

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Experts believe the new Russian satellite is meant to figure out a bit more about USA 326, based on the history of this type of Russian satellite, which has stalked American satellites in the past. Of course, the Russians aren’t advertising their intentions, and the United States hasn’t volunteered to share all the ins and outs of its own spacecraft with the public, either.

“Presumably, it has some kind of sensor system that’s optimized to observe other satellites, rather than the sort of usual observing satellite that’s optimized to take pictures of the ground,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Gizmodo. “We don’t know that for sure, we’re just inferring that from how it’s behaving.”

Marco Langbroek, an astrodynamics lecturer at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, wrote in a blog post that the launch of the new Russian satellite was timed to match USA 326 passing over the Russian spaceport Plesetsk.

“The two orbits are very close,” he tells Gizmodo. “The main difference being a relatively small difference of a few tens of kilometers in orbital altitude. So that is a very clear indication.”

Of course, this is nothing new. Back in 2020, a Russian inspector satellite called Kosmos 2542 synchronized its orbit with an NRO satellite called USA 245. China has also sent up its own inspector satellites, which the country says have been used to monitor its own equipment in geostationary orbit.

With the American mission spelled out, yet still vague, maybe it’s not a surprise that this “inspector” satellite from Russia would want a peek at the activities of USA 326.

“Thats really irresponsible behavior,” Gen. James H. Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, says in a new NBC News interview. “We see that its in a similar orbit to one of our high-value assets for the U.S. government.”

Could this be a new Cold War taking off in space?

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on August 4, 2022. We’ve updated the piece to include new comments from the Pentagon.

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