What the amateur satellite watcher wrote on the short messaging service Twitter sounded like something out of a futuristic espionage thriller: Cosmos 2542, a Russian observation satellite, was supposedly chasing the American spy satellite USA 245 with a distance that varied between 150 and 300 kilometres. USA 245 changed its orbit to escape its pursuer.
Cosmos 2542 also adjusted its trajectory, and the two objects were only 20 kilometres apart at one point. “Everything is circumstantial,” writes the Observer, but everything indicates that a Russian satellite is inspecting its American counterpart.
The tweets caught the attention of Laura Grego, an astrophysicist and space technology specialist who tracks satellites as part of her research. She began following exchanges between amateur observers years ago.
orbital strike 2
Such a war would not be violent in which the parties shoot each other from orbit. Nor would it be an act of combat emanating from above. “Satellites don’t drop bombs,” says Grego. “There are better, faster or cheaper alternatives.”
Instead, space warfare consists of attacking satellites. Cosmos 2542 could have damaged its opponent or even blown them to pieces with the right equipment.
If such a thing had happened, it would probably have been counterattacked by the United States, for example, by destroying a Russian spacecraft. And the first war in space would have begun.
Most countries rely heavily on civilian satellites to transmit signals for things like GPS, credit card transactions, hospital systems, television stations, and weather reports.
Their list of services is almost endless, and many areas of our modern society no longer function without them. The United States, in particular, also relies on its military communications and surveillance satellites.
Therefore, a space war could have dramatic consequences for the United States, probably more than for any other nation.
Satellites are easy targets
Since satellites are points of light that move in predictable orbits, they are essentially fair game. Defending them sufficiently is almost impossible.
Therefore, military officials would likely classify space as a “predominantly offensive” environment, meaning attack is a more accessible and less costly strategy than defence.
The United States responded to this threat in January 2019 by creating an independent military arm, the United States Space Force, arguing that Russia and China had “weaponized” space.
From now on, space is a place where acts of war can be considered. The Space Force was to serve to protect American satellites.
The Cosmos 2542 incident would have had the potential to “create an incendiary situation in space,” as the then-head of the Space Force, General John Raymond, told Time magazine.
However, to this day, neither Grego nor amateur observers know what the Russian satellite was actually doing at the time. The most obvious guess is that he was trying to provoke or intimidate them and, at best, observe something that was not intended for their eyes.
Because it behaved like Russian trawlers are known to do. They approach US Navy ships all the time with precisely that goal.
How far can satellites reach?
Finally, in mid-March 2020, the amateur Observer mentioned at the beginning of this article tweeted that USA 245 had performed a manoeuvre that would take it thousands of kilometres away from its original orbit for weeks if not months.
Later, Cosmos 2542 also flew to another location. Laura Grego responded to the tweet: “A good time to develop a shared understanding of what it means to be too close.
The astrophysicist is part of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the threat of space warfare. Its members say the most likely way to avoid space war would be to reach an international agreement.
However, negotiations on this matter have stalled. “Diplomats never work quickly,” says Grego, but nothing is moving forward so far.