Russia has recently launched a satellite that has sparked concerns among space experts as it is moving closer to what is believed to be a US spy satellite. The Soyuz-2.1v rocket carrying the Kosmos-2558 satellite lifted off on August 1 at 20:25 UTC from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia.
Kosmos-2558 was then placed into a Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO), which is relevant to satellites that cross polar regions of the planet to ensure their orbital paths are synchronous with the Sun.
— Katya Pavlushchenko (@katlinegrey) August 1, 2022
The Russian Ministry of Defense has officially acknowledged that Kosmos-2558 is a military satellite. The former Soviet Union and present-day Russia’s space assets are referred to as the generic filler name Kosmos.
In this instance, the payload was given the name Kosmos-2558 to conceal the true name and function of the spacecraft.
Despite limited information about the satellite, it is speculated to have been launched to coincide with the trajectory and flight path of an American satellite, USA-326.
This American satellite was placed into orbit at 512 kilometers altitude and a 97.4° inclination after being launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 in February 2017 as part of the NROL-87 mission. Purportedly, it is a test optical reconnaissance satellite.
Kosmos-2558 will soon be placed within 80 kilometers of what is thought to be the USA-326 satellite, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics.
Based on the initial TLEs, in its current orbit Kosmos-2558 wil pass within 80 km of NRO's USA 326 satellite at about 1450 UTC Aug 4 (Thursday). Of course, the satellite may manuever before then. pic.twitter.com/0l1dhY8cV8
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) August 2, 2022
When the Soyuz-2.1v rocket lifted off, the USA-326 satellite phased over the launch pad. It is also in line with the northerly direction NOTAM issued before the Soyuz launch.
Experts pointed out that the Kosmos-2558 may be an ‘inspector satellite’ used to monitor USA-326 appearance and behavior. Since 1962, Russian military satellites are also known as Kosmos. It is comparable to the USA-X name given to US satellites.
In March 1962, Sputnik 11, the first Kosmos, was launched.
Why Does Russia Want To Spy On US Satellite?
The USA-326 was launched as a part of the mission designated NROL-87. It is a top-secret national security operation that National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is collaborating on with SpaceX.
According to a press release issued by the NRO after the initial launch, NROL-87 was devised, built, and is currently being operated by the NRO to support its “overhead reconnaissance mission.” It primarily focuses on ensuring national security by utilizing space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).
Dr. Langbroek, a lecturer for optical space situational awareness at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, speculated that the satellite might be a next-generation electro-optical imagery intelligence (IMINT).
The primary purposes of IMINT satellites are to track land and maritime activities.
Dr. Langbroek continues in his blog post by stating that there are signs from USA-326’s orbital characteristics that the satellite is a continuation of the NRO’s KH-11 spy satellite.
Russia sent an inspector satellite named Kosmos-2542 to observe NRO’s KH-11 in 2020. If the speculations are true, it makes sense why Russia would want to spy on the USA-326. This is not the first time a Russian defense satellite has been suspected of being an inspector satellite.
For example, the Kosmos 2542/2543 in November 2019 made some maneuvers, raising suspicions of fulfilling such a mission. However, Russia has never revealed the details of such missions.
According to reports, Kosmos-2543, which Russia also refers to as a “space apparatus inspector,” fired projectiles. Its small size and a high degree of maneuverability can let it approach an intended target very closely.
This degree of maneuverability typically indicates the presence of a potential spy satellite because it enables the asset to approach its target closely enough for various anti-satellite attacks. These attacks can include projectile firing, electronic warfare jamming, the release of aerosols, or the use of directed energy weapons.
Meanwhile, the rocket used in the launch was a Soyuz-2.1v, a member of the Soyuz-2 family. It lacks the distinctive four boosters on the vehicle’s sides and has a single center core propelled by a single NK-33 engine and the RD-0110 steering engine.
The rocket has a diameter of three meters and a height of 44 meters. Its mass at liftoff is 158,000 kilograms. The rocket can transport up to 2,850 kilograms to LEO, but no information about the payload for the recent launch was provided.