The US and Russia have long employed spy satellites to keep tabs on the world, but what about keeping tabs on the satellites? A pair of satellites are currently locked in a bizarre dance as a Russian probe trails its US counterpart for unknown reasons. Russia swears the satellite is completely harmless, but experts aren’t buying that. We might be looking at the first confirmed case of satellite-on-satellite spying.
Unlike most elements of spycraft, the general public can follow the movements of spy satellites in orbit. We may not know what they’re doing, but it’s possible to make some inferences based on how they maneuver. Russia’s Kosmos 2542 probe is doing some unusual maneuvering indeed.
Before the last few weeks of January, Kosmos 2542 and a US satellite known as USA 245 were on similar orbital planes, but they only crossed paths once every 11 or 12 days. Instead of drifting apart as usual, Kosmos 2542 executed a series of maneuvers that brought it in sync with the US satellite. Purdue University graduate student Michael Thompson spotted the maneuvers and posted details on Twitter. According to Thompson, Kosmos 2542 fired its thrusters on January 20, 21, and 22 to take up a position just 186 miles away from USA 245.
Russia’s official story is that Kosmos 2542 is in orbit to test satellite inspection technologies. The idea is that a probe could carry a smaller sub-satellite that it deploys for imaging and inspection. Kosmos 2542 does appear to have a small companion spacecraft, but observers can’t ascertain if it has any function. Regardless of whether that sub-satellite does anything, Russia’s explanation doesn’t explain why the spacecraft would waste precious fuel to follow another satellite.
The most recent close approach took place on January 21st, but instead of then drifting away as usual, Cosmos 2542 performed a series of maneuvers on the 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd to match the period of USA 245. pic.twitter.com/jSMsytae4X
— Michael Thompson (@M_R_Thomp) January 30, 2020
Aerospace engineers speculate that Russia may be shadowing USA 245 in order to gather data about its mission. By observing the satellite, Kosmos 2542 might be able to determine the capabilities of its cameras. With a radio-frequency probe, it could even listen for faint signals from USA 245, which could tell the Kremlin when the satellite is taking photos and what kind of data processing it does on-board.
There aren’t any laws governing close approaches like this in space. So, the US has no legal recourse, nor a way to ward off the outer space interloper. Some countries have tested weapons that can destroy satellites, but that risks creating a shower of debris that can damage other spacecraft. No one has been bold enough to start shooting down another country’s satellites… yet.
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