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Why Is a Russian Military Satellite Creeping on Foreign Comm Satellites?

Ever since it was launched last year, the Luch satellite has been getting uncomfortably close to commercial communications satellites.

by Becky Ferreira
Oct 20 2015, 12:00pm

Screenshot of Luch satellite launch. Image: SpaceUniverse/Roscosmos/YouTube

The Russian military satellite Kosmos 2501, also known as Luch or Olymp, has been acting very strangely of late. Launched on September 28, 2014, Luch spent its first months in geostationary orbit flitting between Russian spacecraft, which was mildly puzzling to satellite trackers, but not an immediate cause for alarm.

But in early April, Luch went on the move again, and this time it nestled provocatively between the orbital paths of two satellites operated by Intelsat, a communications provider based jointly in Luxembourg and Washington DC. Then, on September 25, it relocated once more, positioning itself just 0.1 degrees west of another one of the company's satellites, Intelsat 905.

There are a few sketchy things going on here. First and foremost, unannounced flight changes can be dangerous, as they disrupt the working model of restricting satellites to specific orbital pathways. Switching to an orbit only a few kilometers away from another satellite, without notifying that satellite's operators of your intent, is bound to be met with suspicion.

"This is not normal behavior and we're concerned," Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, said of Luch's recent maneuvers in an Oct. 8 interview with SpaceNews. "We absolutely need responsible operators. Space is a domain that has to be protected."

"If we all did that, we would have a lot of accidents," she added.

Moreover, because Intelsat oversees such a massive communications hub, one that serves governments and militaries, Intelsat is especially concerned that Luch's operators have begun to creep on their satellites with no warning or explanation whatsoever.

To that point, Luch's movements imply that Russia may be experimenting with rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), or at the very least demonstrating its capabilities in this legally dicey arena. That's worrisome because RPO activities could, theoretically, lead to satellites that are able to approach other spacecraft to damage, hack, or destroy them.

A simulation of satellites and debris in geostationary orbit. Image: NASA Orbital Debris Program office

As I wrote last month, it is difficult to police this type of space militarization, because RPO maneuvers and even anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons can be disguised under peaceful objectives, such as repairing satellites instead of tampering with them. Russia is by no means the only nation that is testing the orbital waters with these "dual-use" technologies. According to a recent article for The Space Review written by satellite security expert Brian Weeden, China and the United States have conducted similar operations.

"There is a strong case to be made that the Russian and Chinese RPO activities that present so much of a concern today are reactions to US policies and programs from a decade or more ago," Weeden wrote in his October 5 piece.

"While it is critical for the United States to defend its interests and assets in space, a purely military or aggressive approach is likely to generate more long-term problems than it solves, and threatens the creation of a 'Guns of August' scenario, where—once prepped for war—it will be nearly impossible to de-escalate a crisis and avoid the 'war in space' that the US military says it is trying to," he said.

So where does that leave Intelsat, or any other company that might be find themselves stalked by enigmatic foreign satellites? According to a statement sent to me by a Intelsat spokesperson, the company has tried to establish communications with Luch's operators, but to no avail.

"The recent identification of a satellite belonging to a non-SDA [Space Data Association] member in close proximity to two of our satellites resulted in immediate action by Intelsat," the company's statement read.

"We contacted the appropriate regulatory bodies and governmental agencies to express our concern and to ask them to reach out to the operator to correct the situation and ensure the flight safety of our respective satellites. Despite direct and indirect inquiries by the appropriate regulatory bodies and governmental agencies, the operator of the other satellite was unresponsive."

For the moment, that's more or less all the company is willing to say on the matter. But regardless of whether Luch stays put or relocates again, the satellite is the latest example of why we need space law to keep up with the pernicious use of RPO activities in orbit.