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What to know about the 'space weapon' the U.S. says Russia recently launched

A recent Russian space launch placed a satellite onto the same orbital plane as a U.S. satellite, the Pentagon says. Here, a Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster with the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft sits at the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last September.
Andrey Borodulin
/
AFP via Getty Images
A recent Russian space launch placed a satellite onto the same orbital plane as a U.S. satellite, the Pentagon says. Here, a Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster with the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft sits at the launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last September.

Russia recently launched a satellite that is "likely a counterspace weapon," a U.S. diplomat and the Pentagon said last week, raising new allegations that Russia is weaponizing space. Observers say the Cosmos satellite launched on May 16, reaching an orbit that essentially lets it stalk a U.S. spy satellite.

The U.S. accusation raises questions about how a satellite might be used as a weapon to attack other satellites in low Earth orbit — and how countries might target a rival's assets in space.

Here are answers to some key questions.

What satellites are involved?

"It's Cosmos 2576," Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, told NPR of the Russian satellite. It was launched two weeks ago aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Plesetsk site in northern Russia.

"It appears that the satellite is deployed in the same orbital plane as a U.S. imaging satellite," Podvig added. The U.S. satellite is in a sun-synchronous orbit, allowing it to observe changes in an area over time.
 
The U.S. satellite is believed to be a classified military imaging asset in the Keyhole 11 series, according to Podvig. Launched in 2021, its official designation is USA 314. Since the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. has used "Keyhole" as a code name for satellite imaging systems.

How close are the two satellites?

"You cannot really place a satellite [and] keep it all the time close to the other one. But they kind of move and approach fairly close to each other every few days," Podvig said.

"Russia sometimes declares that these are inspector satellites," he said, a label that suggests the country is using these spacecraft to monitor other satellites.

"Certainly, it makes the U.S. military nervous. That's understandable," he said, because if a country can put a satellite on the same orbital plane as a rival's spacecraft, it's also probably able to damage that craft. 

"They are still pretty far apart," Podvig said, citing a distance of about 30 miles between the U.S. and Russian satellites at their closest point.

"But still, by space standards, it's pretty close."

Along with Russia, the U.S. and China also launch so-called inspector satellites, according to Victoria Samson, who studies military space and security issues for Secure World Foundation, which works with governments, industry, international organizations and civil society to promote sustainable and peaceful uses of outer space.

Countries could deploy an inspector satellite, she told NPR, with many goals in mind, such as seeing what another country's satellite looks like; gathering intelligence by intercepting communications; and testing if it can block a satellite's imaging or transmitting abilities. Other options, Samson added, include launching a projectile at a satellite or "shooting it with directed energy weapons, etc."

What does the U.S. say?

"Russia launched a satellite into low Earth orbit that the United States assesses is likely a counterspace weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit," U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood said at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last week. "Russia deployed this new counterspace weapon into the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite."

The U.S. also says Russia has done this before, in 2019 and 2022. Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said the U.S. believes the Russian satellite launch has "characteristics resembling previously deployed counterspace payloads" from those years. He did not specify what those qualities are. 

U.S. Space Command affirms those assessments — also without providing specifics — saying that as with all space launches, it "will continue to monitor and track the satellite for any concerning on-orbit behaviors."

What does Russia say?

It's fake news, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.

"I don't think that we should respond to any fake news injected by Washington," the diplomat said of the U.S. concerns, according to the state-run Tass media agency.

"We have always spoken consistently against placing attack weapons in near-Earth orbit. It is not accidental that Russia together with a whole number of other states promotes the initiative of not placing weapons in space first," Ryabkov said.

He was seemingly referring to the long-running debate in the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. and Russia have been arguing over language about weapons in orbit.

Podvig, the U.N. researcher, said that on May 20, "Russia tried to pass a resolution that would prohibit placement of weapons in space, which is kind of a long-standing theme in Russia's policy."

"And, as I understand it, the U.S. representative just said, 'Well, you just launched a weapon into space.'"

Has this happened before?

U.S. officials say yes, and observers agree. Some of the earliest analysis of the close orbits of recently launched Cosmos 2576 and USA 314 came from veteran satellite observer Robert Christy and Dutch scientist Marco Langbroek, who operates a satellite tracking station in the Netherlands.

Right now, Langbroek says, at least one other Russian satellite, Cosmos 2558, is "suspiciously co-planar" with what is believed to be a U.S. Keyhole reconnaissance satellite, USA 326. Its path allows Cosmos 2558 to approach USA 326 at about 30 miles every seven days, he said.

A recent overview of counterspace activities from Samson's Secure World Foundation lists recent close approaches known as RPOs — or "Rendezvous and Proximity Operations" — involving Russian satellites, including incidents in late 2019 and 2020 in which a Russian satellite came within about 18 miles of a U.S. satellite.

Both Podvig and Samson warn against assuming that because something has a potential military function, it should be classified as a space weapon.

As Samson explains, the term "counterspace" generally describes an ability to operate against assets in space, not targeting anything on Earth’s surface. But beyond that, things can get murky.

"I think a lot of people tend to think of [counterspace] more as 'space weapons,'" she says. "But that term implies that there is a piece of equipment specifically designed to be used in a destructive and military manner against an enemy's space assets."

The complicating factor in figuring out if a satellite might be used as a weapon, she says, is that many space systems' abilities, even routine duties such as providing image and position data, can potentially be used both for civil and scientific missions — and also to advance military goals.

To assess threats, Samson says, she and her colleagues focus on capabilities, such as a satellite being co-orbital with another satellite and its ability to target or interfere with another country's spacecraft.

What's the bigger picture?

The U.S. accusation is the latest salvo in a running clash over space between Russia and the U.S. The two sides accuse each other of acting in bad faith; both say they don’t want weapons in space — but both also wield space-centric military forces.

The Biden administration told lawmakers in classified briefings earlier this year that Russia was working on — but hadn't deployed — a space weapon using nuclear technology to target satellites. At the time, U.S. officials stressed that the weapon couldn't be used to directly attack people or assets on the Earth's surface.

Last week, John D. Hill, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and missile defense, reiterated the U.S. belief that the Russians are developing a space weapon. He told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee during a budget hearing that Russia's plans include "a new satellite carrying a nuclear device."

"This capability could pose a threat to all satellites operated by countries and companies around the globe," Hill added, "as well as to the vital communications, scientific, meteorological, agricultural, commercial, and national security services humanity depends upon."

Hill encouraged lawmakers to approve President Biden's space budget request of $33.7 billion for the 2025 fiscal year.

It promises to be a busy year for Russia's satellite activity. As a Russian cosmonautics forum notes, the May 16 launch that put Cosmos 2576 into orbit is the second of 18 satellite launches the Russian defense ministry has planned for this year. That's more than twice the number of such launches in 2023, Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation Alexey Krivoruchko said in January.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.