You may scoff at the idea of or the need for a military branch devoted to defending or fighting in outer space. You may laugh at its uniform emblem’s obvious resemblance to the Starfleet Command emblem of the fictional fighters for the United Federation of Planets in the Star trek world. But … who are you going to call when a mysterious Russian spacecraft begins tailing an equally mysterious U.S. spy satellite? Space Force, we have a problem!
"This is all circumstantial evidence, but there are a hell of a lot of circumstances that make it look like a known Russian inspection satellite is currently inspecting a known US spy satellite. A pretty thorough look of the satellite catalog can't produce another potential target that looks as good as this in terms of the orbits and viewing geometry."
That’s part of what Purdue University astrodynamics grad student Michael Thompson tweeted after spotting Cosmos 2542 (also called Kosmos 2542), a Russian inspection satellite launched in late November 2019, enter a synchronized orbit with USA 245, a National Reconnaissance Office KH-11 image gathering spy satellites. Military watchers like The Drive quickly picked up on this and pointed out that Cosmos 2542 is one of many so-called space apparatus inspection satellites that the Russian space program has put into orbit over the past decade.
“Space apparatus inspector” is a benign description for satellites that have exhibited very non-benign orbital behavior. In a previous report by The Drive, the satellites were spotted tailing space debris very closely in a manner that suggests something more than them being robotic ‘space pickers’. (Note to self – pitch ‘Space Pickers’ to cable network.) The Pentagon expressed concerns about these “inspectors” at a 2018 meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, but Russia has continued to launch them. Cosmos 2542 appears to be the first to be ‘inspecting’ an active satellite – USA 245 is one of a number of leading-edge reconnaissance (spy) satellites utilizing electro-optical digital imaging to provide a real-time optical observation capability. In other words, a perfect vehicle for spying on other countries. Why does Thompson and The Drive think Cosmos 2542 is spying on OUR spy?
“As I'm typing this, that offset distance shifts between 150 and 300km depending on the location in the orbit.”
That means Cosmos 2542 has placed itself as close as 93 miles away from USA 245 while speeding at thousands of miles per hour. Even more sinisterly, Thompson observed Cosmos 2542 moving in orbit from one side of USA 245 to the other – giving it a full view of the satellite.
What’s the big deal, you may ask … isn’t this just a real-life playout of Mad Magazine’s iconic “Spy vs. Spy” Cold War cartoons? Maybe – it could just be a sinister game that neither side will win. Since USA 245 is highly classified, we don’t know what its true capabilities or ultimate mission are, nor do we know if it’s capable of its own evasive maneuvers (there haven’t been any yet) or if it’s armed and ready for these types of encounters. However, it’s easy to imagine that Cosmos 2542 is close enough to attack and/or destroy USA 245 or render it useless with electronic jammers, blinding lasers or even just by spraying chemicals on its camera lenses – a perfect ‘Spy vs. Spy’ setup.
Is it time for the Space Force?
“There may come a point where we demonstrate some of our capabilities so that our adversaries understand they cannot deny us the use of space without consequence."
Then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said this at the Space Foundation’s 35th annual Space Symposium in 2019. This sounds like what most people expect the Space Force to do. Can it? Will it live up to its fictional emblem inspiration or will it become one-half of Mad’s ‘Spy vs. Spy’?
“Activate paint shields and spray cans, Mr. Sulu.”