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US Suspects Russia of Launching Anti-Satellite Weapon, Pursuing US Spy Satellite

US intelligence believes the Russian satellite launched last week is capable of inspecting and attacking other satellites, as a Russian spacecraft is currently pursuing a US spy satellite in orbit.

This was reported by a USSPACECOM spokesperson in a commentary to Reuters.

On May 16, Russia’s Soyuz rocket launched from its Plesetsk launch site, situated approximately 500 miles (800 km) north of Moscow. The rocket deployed at least nine satellites into low-Earth orbit, including COSMOS 2576, identified as a Russian military “inspector” spacecraft.

“We have observed nominal activity and assess it is likely a counterspace weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit,” a USSPACECOM spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters. “Russia deployed this new counterspace weapon into the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite.”

US intelligence agencies had anticipated the launch of COSMOS 2576 and shared their evaluation of the satellite with their allies prior to its deployment in space

COSMOS 2576 resembles satellites previously launched by Russia in 2019 and 2022, which the US also alleged were counterspace weapons. In 2019, one of these satellites expelled an object into space and closely trailed a satellite belonging to the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence agency responsible for overseeing spy satellites.

As of Tuesday, COSMOS 2576 has not approached any US satellite. However, space analysts noted its presence in the same orbital path as USA 314, a bus-sized satellite from the NRO launched in April 2021.

Based on a Reuters analysis of orbital data from Space Command’s public satellite catalog, the Russian spy satellite seems to be chasing USA 314's orbital trajectory at a faster pace. This indicates a likelihood of the two satellites eventually approaching each other closely.

This is not the first case of such a “space chase”. Russia’s first “inspector” launch was recorded in 2013, when satellites have repeatedly attempted to chase classified U.S. satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, essentially being called “spy satellites.

The latest “space chase” took place in March 2023. Launched from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, a Russian “inspector” satellite approached the classified USA-326 satellite in a proximity orbit. Initially, the “inspector” adjusted its orbit to maintain distance, but in mid-March 2023, it moved closer to its target. Anticipating a close pass within 31 km, the USA-326 executed an evasive maneuver and shifted to a different orbit, effectively “running” from the Russian “inspector.”

On November 15th, 2021, four months before invading Ukraine, Russia tested its PL-19 “Nudol” mobile anti-satellite launcher. The test, along with the resulting orbital debris, has drawn international attention to the increasingly precarious state of near-Earth space sustainability, emphasizing the need to constrain this kind of weapons testing.

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