WASHINGTON – A mysterious Russian satellite that spent five months parked between two Intelsat satellites left that location in late September and has now cozied up to a third Intelsat satellite.
The Russian satellite, alternatively known as Luch or Olymp, launched in September 2014 and seven months later moved to a position directly between the Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 901 satellites, which are located within half a degree of one another in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator.
But in late September, the satellite moved again, according to an analysis published Oct. 5 by Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation.
The satellite has now settled at 24.4 degrees west longitude, right next to the Intelsat 905 satellite at 24.5 degrees west, according to information available on the space tracking website n2yo.com, which republishes Defense Department data.
Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, the government services arm of satellite operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and McLean, Virginia, has described the satellite’s movements as “irresponsible.”
While the Russian satellite’s mission is not clear, sources said, its maneuvers have been the subject of classified meetings within the Defense Department and captured the attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. One U.S. government official said options are being developed for addressing these types of situations.
Senior Defense Department leaders have talked about emerging threats in space from China and Russia, but some in the space community have complained about the lack of a clear government policy for responding to these challenges.
Publicly, U.S. government officials have tiptoed around discussing the Luch satellite’s maneuvers, with some repeating calls for responsible behavior in space.
“As a general matter, the United States Government supports the right of all nations to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, in accordance with international law,” a State Department official told SpaceNews Oct. 14. “At the same time, it is the shared interest of all nations to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.”
The official declined to answer specific questions about the Luch satellite or to characterize any correspondence the department has or might have had with Russia or with Intelsat on the matter. Intelsat tried to reach the Russian satellite’s owners directly and through the Defense Department but did not receive a response, Sears said.
Doug Loverro, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, declined to outline specific actions the U.S. government could take to provide relief for Intelsat. In an emailed response to SpaceNews questions Oct. 15, he said, “we continue to work closely with our commercial partners to assure they are kept aware of the satellite’s movements and any potential flight safety hazard. We continue to issue predictive conjunction messages to affected satellite owners/operators.”
Air Force officials have said the Luch satellite has come within 5 kilometers of another satellite on three occasions since its launch. They did not identify the satellite or satellites that were approached.
Andrew D’Uva, an adviser to the Space Data Association, which works with commercial satellite companies, including Intelsat, characterized the Russian satellite’s movements as “reckless.” The United Kingdom-based association catalogs information on commercial satellite locations and planned maneuvers to help avoid collisions and radio-frequency interference, and to promote orbital safety in general.
One source said the Russian satellite maneuvered as close as 10 kilometers to one of the Intelsat satellites. Without any information about the Luch satellite’s planned maneuvers, Intelsat has no way of knowing which way to maneuver its own satellite to maintain a safe distance.
“What are you supposed to do?” D’Uva said. “It’s very untenable…How do you know you’re moving away from another object? You don’t.”