Since mid-2017 Russia has been putting into orbit maneuverable satellites that have been practicing, and obviously improving, their ability to get close to the most recently launched American KH-11 photo satellite (also called USA 245). The latest such maneuverable inspection satellite, Kosmos 2542, was launched on November 2019 and was soon maneuvering very close to the most recent USA 245. By late January 2019, Kosmos 2542 was within 298 kilometers (186 miles) of USA 245 and still closing in.
Back in 2017, Russia said its “inspection satellites” were for checking up on Russian satellites to closely examine damage or equipment failure with the intention of using such data to improve satellite design or eventually enable repair or refueling satellites to restore crippled satellites to working order or just refuel satellites that use a lot of fuel to change orbits. This was one of the functions the American Space Shuttle program provided, using trained astronauts to make repairs. The Space Shuttle program was far more expensive than originally planned and it was not worth the cost. The shuttle mission was in 2011. It was cheaper just to send new satellites up although the U.S. Air Force has had its X-37B unmanned mini-space shuttle launched and returned by itself several times since 2011. The X-37B stays in orbit up to two years before returning. The air force won’t say exactly what it is doing up there.
At the moment the Russian inspection satellites are useful for getting close enough to take high-resolution photos of American spy satellites as well as monitor their electronic signals for useful information on how to eavesdrop or jam those signals. Another use is to destroy the few (usually four) KH-11 satellites in orbit. That is no longer as effective a tactic as it once was. There are now dozens of photo satellites in orbit, most of them commercial models that sell the photos to anyone. A large number of amateur ground observers now have the telescopes and skills to detect and track new satellites, especially the unpublicized military ones, very quickly. These skilled amateurs are also in touch with each other via the Internet and share information and often cooperate in gathering more data on interesting orbital activity.
The current Russian inspection satellite efforts were first noticed in mid-2017 after the June 23 launch of Kosmos-2519. Like most new satellites it was tracked from the earth and engaged in some unexpected behavior. This attracted more monitoring by amateur and professional satellite observers. Initially, Kosmos-2519 demonstrated that it was maneuverable as it changed orbit twice. Most modern satellites have some maneuvering ability so this was not strange. Then on August 23, 2017, Kosmos-2519 deployed another satellite (Kosmos-2521) which Russia announced was a “satellite inspector.” These are not unusual, but they are usually sent up by themselves, not as part of a larger satellite. Kosmos-2521 spent the next two months maneuvering around Kosmos-2519 as if testing its ability to get close to other satellites. Then at the end of October 2017 Kosmos-2521 also deployed a smaller satellite (Kosmos-2523) which did not maneuver. After that and into early 2018 the original Kosmos-2519 did all the maneuvering, using the smaller Kosmos-2521 as the test subject. In February 2018 Kosmos-2521 began maneuvering again, using Kosmos-2519 to maneuver around. In June and July Kosmos-2519 again began maneuvering, changing orbit several times but not moving since July 19. The next day Kosmos-2521 also changed its orbit and has not moved since then.
At this point, the Russians were not talking about what this agile trio was up to but foreign observers, especially those who specialize in satellite security noted that this trio had exhibited the mission profile of a sophisticated “killsat” (satellite killer). Worse the Russian satellites exhibited the profile of an advanced killsat that did not just destroy other satellites but that could sabotage them or attach devices that would monitor, or even modify, what the satellite did. Until now such an advanced killsat had been theoretical but this appeared to be the first time someone built and tested a prototype. One advantage of such an advanced killsat is that it does not blast (by explosives or collision) other satellites into hundreds (or thousands) of pieces that then become an unstable debris swarm that is a danger to everyone’s satellites. This new kind of killsat can sabotage or take control of other satellites. Much better. In response to repeated queries, all Russia would say was that the nimble trio were tests of new technology.
The new technology (Kosmos 2542) is now in orbit and closely examining American, not Russian satellites. There is an international treaty that bans “weaponizing space” but that Cold War era agreement was mainly about keeping nuclear weapons for being placed in orbit. Killsats can be interpreted as a violation of “no weapons in orbit” agreement but like so many Cold War disarmament treaties the one that applied to orbital space has been largely ignored since the Cold War ended. China has openly tested Killsat technology and apparently so is Russia, just in a less blatant way.
The goal now is not so much putting nukes in orbit as it is blinding enemy information gathering that depends on satellites. This became an issue because of the growing presence of very capable spy satellites. Current American photo satellites have a resolution of about 2 cm (less than an inch). Currently, the U.S. has four improved KH-11 (sometimes called KH-12s) satellites in orbit, the last of these launched in 2013. The first of new KH-11s (sometimes called KH-13s) was launched in January 2019 as NROL-71 and another, referred to as NROL-82, is supposed to go up sometime in 2020. Like the current KH-12s, the new ones will cost over $4 billion each and apparently use more non-photographic tech like new radar systems.
The availability of high-resolution satellite photos with military usefulness began in the 1960s with the first appearance of the KH (Key Hole) series of photo satellites. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959 but the first successful one was in 1960. These film-using satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations through the 1980s. The KH 1 through 9 series satellites sent the film back in canisters so these high-resolution pictures could be developed. The Keyhole 9, the first of which went up in 1971, was not only the last of the film satellites but the largest and most capable. Its basic design was used by the subsequent digital camera birds. The KH 9 could cover large areas at high (for the time) resolution of .6 meters (24 inches). This was more than adequate to spot and count tanks, aircraft, and small warships. The 19th, and last, KH 9 went up in 1984. The KH-9 was a 13 ton satellite with multiple cameras and 4 or 5 reentry vehicles for returning the film for developing and analysis. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird.
The age of film began to fade when the first digital satellite, the KH 11, was launched in 1976. These birds were large, nearly 15 tons, and the digital cameras could obtain a better resolution and broadcast the photos back to earth. The resolution was such that objects 70mm (a few inches) in size could be identified from 200 kilometers. Digital cameras were more flexible than film and eventually surpassed film in all categories. The KH-11 telescopic cameras operated like a high-resolution TV camera. Images were captured continuously and transmitted to earth stations. Computers were used to finish the process and produce photos identical to those taken by a conventional film camera. You could even have motion pictures, as well as indications of heat and the nature of the various items. KH-11 could often tell what kind of metal an object on the ground was made of.
All this did not come cheap. These birds cost over $400 million each and lasted three or four years, depending on fuel consumption to change orbit. Moreover, you needed two of them up at the same time in order to guarantee coverage and save the birds from having to change orbit too frequently. The most recent KH-11, the 15th, was launched in 2013. There have been at least four models of the KH-11 since the first of five "Block 1s" was launched in 1976. Since the 1960s over a hundred KH series satellites have been launched. The Big Bird film using KH-9s didn’t last long because once their film supply was gone they were useless.
The next generation of digital satellites, the KH-12 (officially “improved KH-11”), was supposed to have been launched in 1987. But because of problems with the space shuttle (one had exploded during launch), only a belated KH-11 was launched in October 1987. The KH-12 was delayed, even though it had several advantages over the KH-11. Along with improvements in ground data processing equipment, the KH-12 could send back data in real-time. You could watch events on a large, high-resolution screen as they were happening. This would also allow military headquarters and other users to get their satellite information directly, without going through a CIA or NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) processing center. Data from the more esoteric sensors would still have to be studied by the specialists elsewhere. The KH-12 was expected to make users even more enthusiastic about satellite reconnaissance. It did, in the form of a much upgraded KH-11. Actually, these birds were called KH-12s but are still officially known as KH-11 and still are. That is something of a tribute to the capability and flexibility of the original KH-11 design, the first of which went into orbit during 1976.
The flood of photographic and electronic data was growing far larger than the force of analysts available to make something of it. In addition to the KH series birds, there were radar and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) satellites constantly broadcasting data. Then there are the Defense Support Program satellites, which use heat sensors to locate the hot plumes of missile launches. So although no new KH-11s were launched between 2013 and 2018, there have been plenty of new spy satellites put into orbit, especially radar satellites for monitoring the earth's surface in any kind of weather.
It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can provide. The government also wants to ensure secrets are kept by having complete control over at least a pair of commercial-grade satellites.
The two new government-owned commercial birds took over the task of tracking troop movements, bases, and military operations in general. The two new high resolution, military-grade, spy satellites were improved versions of existing ones. These are used to get detailed (able to detect something smaller than an inch) photos of something the commercial-grade images (able to detect something 30-45 cm/12-18 inches in size) found interesting.
The troops and military planners are also big users of Google Earth, which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military, commercial-grade, photo satellites eliminated the potential for information leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more capacity to do low-resolution jobs.