An alleged case of hi-tech espionage begun to circulate in the media after Florence Parly, the French defence minister claimed that a Russian satellite, named “Luch” or “Olymp” steered itself in the open space into a position where it was able to sniff communications emanated from the French-Italian satellite called “Athena-Fidus”.
The alleged affair happened in 2017, according to Ms. Parly who spoke at a space research centre in Toulouse. It is noteworthy, that the US military’s space command, JFCC-Space already released statements about the very same “Luch-Olymp” satellite is used to snoop on military communications, and this was back in 2015.
According to professional resources, contemporary satellites are used in many ways and are increasingly capable of so-called “rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO)”, which are generally covering the capabilities to calculate a route to bump into another object into space, while both objects are orbiting around the Earth. This ability is used to have old and non-functioning satellites “kill off” each other – so as to prevent adversaries to somehow get hold of them in the future while they are helplessly orbiting forever. But newer and smaller “hit-to-kill” anti-satellite satellites (ASAT) are being launched into the space lately, by all the big national players plus by some commercial entities.
While some fields of the space war stuff is regulated by arms control agreements, the development of anti-stellite weapons (high-altitude surface-to-air or air-to-air missiles mostly) never stopped. And sniffing communication packets off of a satellite is not war, just curiosity 🙂
And even though it is now in the limelight, thanks to the media, signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection by satellites is nothing new. And it is being done by those who are having the capability. Only it is high time that the East resurfaces as a serious adversary in all technical fields, including the space domain.
And where we are standing in the capabilities to actually track movements in the space? Well, the Haystack and Goldstone radars operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), respectively, can track objects in the space down to a few millimeters in size given the right conditions, but they only collect a few hundred hours of data each year. Additional sensors are planned for the near future that could provide the capability to track objects in this category more reliably, such as the S-Band Fence.
This ability of course means that the possible capabilities to track objects that are way closer are probably even better…