Russian Military Satellite Appears To Be Stalking A New U.S. Spy Satellite

A recently launched Russian satellite with capabilities unknown is getting suspiciously close to what is reportedly a new U.S. spy satellite.

byEmma Helfrich|
Russia photo


Russia has launched satellite 14F150 Nivelir into orbit under a mission dubbed Kosmos-2558, and its current orbital path could soon place it in close proximity to what is reported to be the spy satellite designated USA-326. Unconfirmed rumors that the asset will serve as an 'inspector' satellite to covertly spy on nearby spacecraft have begun to circulate online following the launch and would line up with Russia’s known on-orbit anti-satellite weapons capabilities and developments. 

The Kosmos-2558 satellite was launched on August 1 at 20:25 UTC from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia as a payload on the Soyuz-2.1v rocket. Kosmos-2558, which the Russian Ministry of Defense itself said is a military satellite in an official statement, was then deployed into a Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO), which pertains to satellites that travel over the polar regions of the globe so their orbital paths are synchronous with the Sun. Its exact purpose is unknown at present, but it has been described as an "inspector" satellite, a term that is often associated with so-called “killer satellites.” 

Despite Kosmos-2558’s mission having not yet been specifically disclosed, it is important to note that the USA-326 satellite is also currently deployed into an SSO. In fact, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, or @planet4589 on Twitter, has noted that Kosmos-2558’s current orbital path will soon place it within 80 km of what is believed to be the USA 326 satellite. For reference, the Center for Astrophysics is a collaborative effort run jointly by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard College Observatory.

Independent analysts online also used a Notice to Air Missions provided by the Federal Aviation Administration to compare Kosmos-2558’s launch window to the orbital plane of USA 326 and were quick to point out that the American satellite would be passing over Plesetsk at approximately 20:25 UTC on August 1. As expected, Kosmos-2558 was launched at the exact time USA 326 passed over the region and has since settled into an orbital altitude that will allow it to maneuver closer to the American satellite in the coming days.

Why Russia would want to use Kosmos-2558 to spy on USA-326 could be explained by the American satellite’s mission. USA-326 was launched in February of this year by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket out of Vandenberg Space Force Base, its mission designated NROL-87, which is a classified national security operation led by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in partnership with SpaceX. A press release shared by the NRO following the initial launch claimed that NROL-87 was designed, built, and now operated by the NRO to support its “overhead reconnaissance mission,” which is largely centered around protecting national security through the exploitation of space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Independent analyst Dr. Marco Langbroek, a lecturer for optical space situational awareness at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has gone on to speculate about the type of satellite that USA-326 may be. In one of his blog posts, Dr. Langbroek wrote that the spacecraft could possibly be a next-generation electro-optical imagery intelligence (IMINT) satellite, which would line up with what we do know of the USA-326 mission’s ISR focus. IMINT satellites are used primarily to monitor ground and sea activity, and U.S. military capabilities in this space exceed any other on the planet.  

In his blog post, Dr. Langbroek goes on to add that there are indications from USA-326’s orbital characteristics that the satellite is part of a follow-on program to the NRO’s KH-11 spy satellite that Russia deployed an inspector satellite named Kosmos-2542 to observe in 2020. If Dr. Langbroek is correct and USA-326 is a next-generation IMINT satellite or is distinct in some other capacity like being a follow-on to KH-11, it could help explain why Russia would want to, at the very least, get a closer look at it. However, the Kremlin may also have more detailed intel on the specific kinds of operations USA-326 will be carrying out that could have further inspired the suspicious launch and orbital path.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Russia has deployed an inspector satellite to monitor the United States' space presence either. In 2018, Russia announced that four objects would be launched into space, which directly conflicted with data obtained by the U.S. military's Combined Space Operations Center showing that five objects had actually breached the atmosphere. Officials then began to suspect that the fifth object was an inspector satellite, as Russia had previously announced the launch of four such satellites between the years 2014 and 2017. The last of which subsequently deployed an additional three subsatellites that were launched in the summer and fall of 2017.

The Kosmos-2558 launch at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

While Russia, China, and the United States have been working on proposals for a robotic space vehicle (or “space apparatus inspector” as coined by Russia) to carry out benign inspections and repairs on-orbit and could have been the fifth object, these systems have a darker secondary potential use — to manipulate and surveil adversary satellites in orbit. It's also possible that the fifth 'inspector' satellite, could still be equipped with surveillance technologies, electronic warfare and other jamming capabilities, or even weapons. At the very least, it could smash into another satellite, disabling or destroying it.

In 2019, a small Russian satellite maneuvered threateningly close to a U.S. national security satellite and released a projectile in an on-orbit anti-satellite weapons test that Space Force General David Thompson later said was clearly an example of Russia sending a message. On top of that, six months after Kosmos-2542 was observed "shadowing" the NRO's KH-11 spy satellite, Space Force confirmed that the Russian government had fired on-orbit projectiles during two anti-satellite weapons tests conducted in the three years prior.

The rocket and payload for the Kosmos-2558 mission at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia before launch. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

Kosmos-2543, which Russia also describes as a "space apparatus inspector," was reported to be the spacecraft that fired the projectiles, and outside of an anti-satellite exercise, its small size and high degree of maneuverability can allow it to get very close to an intended target. In fact, it is this level of maneuverability that usually signals the presence of a potential spy satellite as it allows the asset to get close enough to its target for various anti-satellite attacks that could range from the firing of projectiles, electronic warfare jamming, releasing aerosols, to the employment of directed energy weapons. The latter can include something as simple as using a laser to blind the optics of a spy satellite.

Similar maneuvers can be seen occurring right now with Kosmos-2558 as it moves its way closer to USA-326. Initial data dictates that, in its current orbital path, Kosmos-2558 will pass within 80 km of the NRO's USA-326 satellite at about 14:50 UTC on Thursday, August 4 if neither of the satellites maneuver away from or closer to each other before then. McDowell does not expect that Kosmos-2558 will maneuver within 50 km of USA 326 as an observational mission can be accomplished from outside that distance, but that doesn't change the fact that the threat to U.S. orbital systems is growing very quickly, which you can continue to read more about in this past War Zone piece here.

Needless to say, it will be interesting to see how it plays out if McDowell’s assumption is later proven to be incorrect. Russia's launch made no apparent attempt to hide the close orbital proximity between the two satellites, and it’s difficult to see why Kosmos-5228 would have been deployed if not to be near USA-326. Close eyes will surely be kept on the satellites’ orbital paths as Thursday approaches. 

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