A Russian Proton rocket carrying the mysterious Luch satellite launches Sept. 28, 2014 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos.

Editorial | Russia’s Orbital Provocations

U.S. government officials tend to avoid specifics when discussing what they characterize as increasingly threatening activities by Russia and China in space. Beyond the obvious — China’s brazen destruction of one of its own low-orbiting satellites in 2007 — these officials have cited what they say, but are hard-pressed to prove, have been nondestructive anti-satellite tests by China and suspicious maneuvers by Russian satellites.

But thanks to publicly available orbital tracking data, coupled with the candor of commercial satellite operator Intelsat, the world now has a fresh and alarming example. According to Intelsat, Russia’s Luch satellite, launched in 2014, has on multiple occasions parked itself dangerously close to some of the company’s satellites. In one instance, the company said, Luch ensconced itself directly between two Intelsat satellites that are practically co-located — at 18 degrees and 18.2 degrees west longitude.

U.S. Air Force officials say the Russian craft has come as close as 5 kilometers to someone’s satellite, but won’t say whose. In other words, it is possible that Luch has had close encounters with other satellites whose owners aren’t talking, at least in public.

But the Intelsat approaches are, by themselves, arguably the biggest publicly known provocations in space since China’s 2007 anti-satellite test. Intelsat says it tried several times to get information from Russia about the Luch satellite’s planned maneuvers but was ignored.

Intelsat has described Russia’s behavior as irresponsible.

Here’s another word: unacceptable.

It is unacceptable for anyone, let alone a country with strong international space ties — including with the United States — and which regularly proposes banning space weapons to the United Nations.

It’s no secret that some of the U.S. military’s most critical satellites operate in geostationary orbit and could be vulnerable — in multiple ways — to maneuverable satellites in their immediate vicinity. These assets include the Space Based Infrared System satellites that provide advance warning of missile launches and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites that would be needed to coordinate and execute the U.S. response to a nuclear first strike. Losing these satellites would be catastrophic; the very notion that they can be held at risk damages the U.S. deterrence posture.

It seems unlikely that anyone outside the Russian government knows exactly what Luch is up to — or is capable of — but it’s not a huge stretch to think it could be eavesdropping on transmissions carried via Intelsat satellites, possibly including potentially sensitive military traffic.

The explanation by one Russian expert, who was quoted in state-approved media as saying Luch is a harmless data-relay satellite, is not reassuring. Even if the intent of its operators is purely benign, the satellite is risking a costly and potentially destructive collision. Without knowing Russia’s intentions, or even whether the satellite is under proper control, Intelsat has no reliable recourse for protecting its assets — attempting to maneuver out of harm’s way could easily backfire given the imprecision and lack of immediacy of orbit location data.

This is the type of problem that defies a simple solution.

It’s probably fair to view Luch as emblematic of the observed activities that persuaded the White House to commit some $5.5 billion to various space protection programs over the next five years. But other than identify a few pre-existing programs to which some of this money will be directed, U.S. authorities have not detailed the investment plan and probably never will — many of the activities are classified. It therefore is impossible for outsiders to gauge its chances of success, but one thing is known: Throwing money at problems doesn’t necessarily solve them.

Despite the provocative nature of the Luch maneuvers, the U.S. government is in a delicate position: It typically is reluctant to reveal just how much it knows about what’s going on in space. Moreover, the U.S. military has long been experimenting with close-proximity satellite operations that might easily be construed as clandestine tests of anti-satellite capabilities.

At least one U.S. expert has suggested that the government reserve the right to pre-emptively destroy satellites that venture too close to America’s critical military space assets, an idea that gives arms control advocates apoplexy. They say such a move would create a dangerous runaway arms race in space, although others would argue that horse left the barn long ago.

Far less drastic would be a re-energized push by the United States and its allies for an international space code of conduct that establishes norms of behavior — the Luch maneuvers would no doubt fall outside these — and reduce the chances of misunderstandings that could lead to bad outcomes. There are myriad issues with the code, initially proposed by the European Union, beginning with the fact that it is voluntary, with no enforcement mechanisms. But at minimum it has the potential to clearly establish who the bad actors are.

U.S. government officials are no doubt hard at work trying to come up with options for deterring or responding to the sorts of behaviors exhibited by the Luch satellite. Clearly they have their work cut out for them — the stakes couldn’t be much higher.