U.S. government officials tend to avoid specifics when discussing what they characterize as increasingly threatening activities by Russia and China in space. Beyond the obvious — China’s brazen destruction of one of its own low-orbiting satellites in 2007 — these officials have cited what they say, but are hard-pressed to prove, have been nondestructive anti-satellite tests by China and suspicious maneuvers by Russian satellites.
But thanks to publicly available orbital tracking data, coupled with the candor of commercial satellite operator Intelsat, the world now has a fresh and alarming example. According to Intelsat, Russia’s Luch satellite, launched in 2014, has on multiple occasions parked itself dangerously close to some of the company’s satellites. In one instance, the company said, Luch ensconced itself directly between two Intelsat satellites that are practically co-located — at 18 degrees and 18.2 degrees west longitude.
U.S. Air Force officials say the Russian craft has come as close as 5 kilometers to someone’s satellite, but won’t say whose. In other words, it is possible that Luch has had close encounters with other satellites whose owners aren’t talking, at least in public.
But the Intelsat approaches are, by themselves, arguably the biggest publicly known provocations in space since China’s 2007 anti-satellite test. Intelsat says it tried several times to get information from Russia about the Luch satellite’s planned maneuvers but was ignored.
Intelsat has described Russia’s behavior as irresponsible.
Here’s another word: unacceptable.