A Russian “Inspector” satellite appears to be chasing a secret US military satellite in a game of cat and mouse

A Russian "Inspector" satellite appears to be chasing a secret US military satellite in a game of cat and mouse

A mysterious Russian satellite and a confidential US military satellite appear to be engaged in a cat-and-mouse hunt through space.

The Russian spacecraft, named Kosmos-2558, was launched into the same orbit as the US satellite, named USA-326, in August 2022 and has regularly flown near the American spacecraft ever since.

Kosmos-2558’s behavior and the lack of a formal statement from Russia have led space observers to believe that the probe is tracking USA-326. It’s at least the third satellite Russia has launched that appears to be an “inspector” — a spacecraft aimed at collecting close-range data from another satellite.

The image below shows how much detail an inspector satellite can potentially capture when photographing its target. A Maxar satellite, which normally images Earth, snapped this photo as it flew past a discarded piece of a Japanese rocket in orbit:

A dome shaped piece of spaceship with plates in space in two mirror images, one black and white, the other gold colored

An interstage ring and payload adapter from a Japanese H-IIA rocket, imaged by an orbiting Maxar satellite, shows how much detail one satellite could gather by photographing another.

Satellite Image ©2023 Maxar Technologies

“This is just amazing,” Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist, told Insider about the Maxar image. “And that’s for a satellite that’s not designed to look at other satellites. It’s designed to look at Earth.”

If Kosmos-2558 is the inspector it appears to be, specifically designed to track USA-326 and likely collect data, then it’s likely getting even better pictures.

Spaceships have been spying on each other for decades. All you have to do is put your satellite in a higher orbit than the satellites you want to observe. But Russia appears to be trying a new method to pursue certain goals, and it’s not clear why.

“This is truly irresponsible behavior,” General James H. Dickinson, commander of US Space Command, told NBC News after Russia launched Kosmos-2558. “We see it in a similar orbit as one of our most valuable assets to the US government.”

The Pentagon has said that USA-326 is to support “overhead reconnaissance” – a spy satellite program to gather intelligence by observing the Earth.

Dickinson added that the US would continue to pursue the Russian spacecraft.

How one satellite can track another

The moon sets below the earth's horizon against the blackness of space

The Moon sets below Earth’s horizon as seen from the International Space Station in orbit.


The two satellites orbit the Earth in the same plane but at different speeds, allowing Kosmos-2558 to periodically fly under its US target.

“If you imagine two athletes running around a track on slightly different lanes and one faster than the other, every now and then one laps the other and gets close,” explained McDowell.

Each lap could be an opportunity to take a photo.

According to McDowell’s observations, Kosmos-2558 narrowly missed USA-326 four times in March. The Russian satellite usually passes within about 50 kilometers (31 miles) of its American target — not nearly close enough to risk a collision, but close enough to likely get detailed images.

“I see it as curious rather than aggressive,” McDowell said.

Russia appears to be experimenting with a new space stalking technology

Russia has done this before.

Image shows satellites dropping metal debris high above the earth

An illustration of a satellite breaking up over the earth.


Another Kosmos satellite exhibited “stalking” behavior after its launch in 2014 — but it was tracking its own rocket stage, not an enemy spacecraft, according to Anatoly Zak, a journalist who covers Russia’s space program and runs

Then, in 2020, a US Space Force general reported that two mysterious Russian satellites were tracking a US spy satellite.

“It appears to be a program that they’re experimenting with this technology,” McDowell said.

The US satellite has only moved slightly higher

In the latest evolution of this orbital hide-and-seek, the US satellite jumped to a higher orbit and climbed further away just before Kosmos-2558 was due to fly by nearby again on April 7, according to hobbyist satellite tracker Nico Janssen.

The Russian satellite should pass its US military target at a distance of about 31 kilometers on April 7, Janssen calculated. Instead, it was 45 kilometers that came closest to him.

This may have been a US maneuver to avoid the close approach of the Russian satellite, Zak reported. But it is not clear that the US satellite has run away.

“That would have been useless as the Kosmos satellite can also increase its altitude again if it wishes,” Janssen told Insider in an email.

McDowell agrees.

“It’s *possible* that this was an evasive burn, but not *probably* in my current opinion,” he said in a follow-up email.

Instead, Janssen believes the US satellite was just performing a routine boost to make up for the altitude it recently lost due to solar activity. Eruptions on the sun have flung charged particles across the earth that can propel satellites into lower orbits.

Between the sun and orbital spies, “satellites are very vulnerable,” Janssen said.

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