Sunday, April 7, 2019

US Satellites Revealed to Have Secretly Approached Russian, Chinese Spacecraft

GSSAP artist rendering. Credit: US Air Force.

Following the launch of the first geosynchronous surveillance satellites by the US in 2014, little was known about their operation, as Washington kept a veil of secrecy around them. But a recent report has shed light on the first two years of their activities.

The Secure World Foundation has published a report revealing details on the activities of the secret Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), launched by the US in 2014 with the declared mission to detect and track space objects in geosynchronous orbit.

According to the report, the US remains secretive about the activities of four operational GSSAP satellites, but by using the data from the ISON space surveillance network, operated by the Russian Academy of Sciences, the foundation has managed to reconstruct their movements since their launch in 2014. The SWF indicates that they have made approaches to Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, and Nigerian satellites, both civilian and military ones, using maneuvering engines.

GSSAP satellites (GSSAPS) work in pairs, with one located slightly lower than geosynchronous orbit and the other a bit higher. When they were needed to inspect certain objects, they approached their targets. GSSAPS at times approached as close as 10 kilometers. Some approaches were made when the satellites were in the Earth's shadow, making their actions invisible for Earth-based telescopes, according to the report.

It's so far unclear what exactly the GSSAPS were doing and what information they had received from their studies.

The news comes amid US President Donald Trump's plans to establish a new military branch, called the Space Force, diverting some tasks from the Air Force, which currently deals with space-related military programs. The plan has generated mixed reactions in the US.

Heather Wilson, the United States secretary of the Air Force, criticized the idea, suggesting instead creating a special department inside the Air Force rather than a new branch. At the same time, the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, while calling it a bit "controversial", still branded it "cool" and pointed out that the creation of the Air Force had once met the same criticism.


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