Gen. John Raymond, chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force and commander of U.S. Space Command. Credit: Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. Space Command and chief of the U.S. Space Force Gen. John Raymond said recent orbital maneuvers by a Russian “inspector” satellite are unacceptable and appeared to be threatening a U.S. national security satellite.

Raymond was referring to a pair of Russian satellites launched Nov 25. One of the satellites, dubbed Cosmos-2542, ejected a sub-satellite, Cosmos-2543. Some analysts and satellite watchers have suggested the sub-satellite “inspector” was chasing USA 245, a classified imaging satellite owned by the National Reconnaissance Office.

“These satellites have been actively maneuvering near a U.S. government satellite,” Raymond said Feb. 10 in an interview with SpaceNews.

Raymond’s response to the Russian satellite maneuvers was first reported Feb. 10 by TIME Magazine.  This was the first public comment by a U.S. official on the Russian satellite reportedly chasing a U.S. spacecraft.

“We remain committed to preferring that space remain free of conflict,” Raymond told SpaceNews. “But other nations have turned space into a warfighting domain,” he added. “Russia is developing on-orbit capabilities that seek to exploit the United States’ reliance on space-based systems.”

The Russian inspector satellite came to the attention of the news media following a series of tweets by Michael Thompson, astrodynamics and space applications graduate student at Purdue University.

Thompson on Jan. 30 tweeted: “Something to potentially watch: Kosmos 2542, a Russian inspection satellite, has recently synchronized its orbit with USA 245, an NRO KH11.”

According to Thompson, “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 U.S. spy satellite.” He reported that Cosmos 2542 made its most recent maneuver on Jan. 31 and was drifting toward USA 245. Cosmos 2542 “probably only was close to USA 245 for a few days at most before 245 made a maneuver to start to drift away.”

Raymond did not dispute Thompson’s account and confirmed that there was a “close approach to a known U.S. satellite.” He said he believed the maneuvers were intentional and demonstrated aggressive behavior. “We have notified Russia through diplomatic channels,” he said.

He said U.S. Space Command had been tracking the pair of Russian satellites since launch.

Raymond also revealed that the United States believes Russia in 2017 deployed a similar satellite that released a sub-satellite. One of the spacecraft “exhibited characteristics of a weapon,” he said. “One of these satellites released a projectile into space.”

The United States subsequently expressed concerns to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in 2018, said Raymond.

To be sure, some satellite watchers have challenged Thompson’s analysis and believe more research is needed to confirm that the Russian satellite was intentionally shadowing USA 245.

T.S. Kelso, senior research astrodynamicist at Analytical Graphics Inc., said in an email to SpaceNews that while orbital data is available for Cosmos 2542 from the U.S. Space Force 18th Space Control Squadron, the U.S. government does not provide similar data for USA 245. That data is being provided by amateur observers. “My concern here is that the reports are mixing and matching data and many simply assume that the data is correct. Done improperly and you could have whoever is trying to track USA 245 actually tracking Cosmos 2542. But we don’t have the necessary transparency into observations or processes that might give us confidence that there are actually two objects here and that they are being tracked without mixing observations.”

Kelso said he could not yet provide any definitive analysis on the Russian inspector satellite because there is no independent source of observation data to address these questions. Most U.S. companies that track space objects, he said, “don’t want to touch that live wire of tracking a classified U.S. satellite.”

Raymond defended the quality of the tracking data provided by the U.S. government. “The U.S. is the most transparent in the world,” he said. U.S. Space Command, Raymond said, has space data-sharing agreements with 20 countries and about a hundred companies and academic institutions.

What Russia has been doing in space “has the potential to create a dangerous situation,” said Raymond. “These activities don’t reflect the behavior of responsible space faring nations.”

Going forward, he said, “I think there needs to be a discussion on norms of behavior and on responsible behavior in space.” Space fairing nations, Raymond said. “need to have that conversation and I would encourage more dialogue.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...