German analytical psychologist and father of Jungian theory Carl Jung was the first to coin the term ‘synchronicity,’ a concept that understood coincident yet unrelated events that happen at one time as being meaningfully related. In his 1977 text Jung on Synchronicity and the Paranormal: Key Readings, the psychologist noted: ‘When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them – for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.’ And there are times when synchronicity is a fine thing. We’re thinking of when project requirements and cleanroom resources are ‘in sync’ with each other or when test results line up perfectly – it just makes life a little easier, don’t we all agree?
Something, for instance, like the recent change in orbit of a Russian spy satellite that brought it in close(r) proximity to its American counterpart.
When we learned recently that the satellite Cosmos 2542 had apparently randomly ‘positioned itself uncomfortably close to an American spy satellite in orbit around Earth’ our interest was of course piqued.(1) Could this indeed be a Jungian coincidence, little more than a spontaneous synchronization? Could the paths of two craft on secretive missions simply cross in such an arbitrary way? Or could the adjustment point to something sinister, a development more political than scientific? Naturally, we just had to take a closer look…
Launched from a Delta 4-Heavy rocket as a ‘gap-filler’ satellite in 2013, the American craft USA 245 is, in essence, a spy bird.
Operated by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) which inhabits the intersection of national security and global surveillance, it is a $4 billion orbital telescope that circumnavigates the planet in an elliptical low-Earth orbit and is one of four KH-11 electro-optical digital imaging reconnaissance spacecraft. From its vantage point between 100 and 1200 miles above the surface of the Earth, it provides real-time optical observation capabilities of ground-based activity. The approximate size of a shipping container (65ft by 10ft and weighing around 40,000lbs), the satellite can be seen with the naked eye and is, according to an article published recently in The Daily Beast, a favorite object amongst satellite trackers. The KH-11s ‘maintain orbits that dip as low as 160 miles and climb as high as 620 miles, allowing the satellites to modulate between viewing huge swaths of Earth at low resolution and much smaller sections of the planet at high resolution. [And by] coordinating the orbits of the KH-11s, the NRO can maintain simultaneous wide and narrow surveillance.’(2) Indeed, according to AmericaSpace.com, the telescopes provide a resolution of ‘up to 3.9 inch resolution from 200 mi. altitude or higher.’(3) The data gathered by the KH-11s are relayed to other satellites which, in turn, transmit to ground stations. Given that the KH-11s reach a velocity of around 18,000mph their time over a given target is limited, but the size of their mirrors – at 2.4 meters in diameter – allows them to identify objects as small as 4 inches across. Four inches across: let’s just ponder that for a second. And what happens to the data collected by this eye in the sky? Relayed to and processed by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, it is available to all U.S. defense and intelligence organizations – the CIA, FBI, DOD, and the NSA. A useful resource indeed.
So what of USA245’s Russian counterpart? Launched in November from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome near Moscow, Cosmos 2542 is a small inspection satellite that rode up into space on the back of a Soyuz rocket. It initially began an orbit between 250 and 550 miles above the surface of the Earth and, until last month, it ‘mostly stayed a respectful distance from the KH-11 as the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office satellite went about its business snapping high-resolution photographs of America’s rivals.’(4) In the initial orbital cycle, the Russian craft would pass USA 245 every 11 to 12 days, however, on January 21st, it altered course. Using onboard thrusters to initiate changes in direction, it stayed close to the American craft instead of drifting away in its accustomed orbit. In essence, the paths of the two craft synchronized into the same pattern.
Sat-trackers on the ground were perplexed at this turn of events, describing Cosmos 2542 as ‘loitering’ near its counterpart as it looped around to observe both sides of USA 245.
Michael Thompson, a graduate student in astrodynamics who took to Twitter to chronicle events, noted a ‘cleverly designed’ pattern of movement: ‘Cosmos 2542 can observe one side of the KH-11 when both satellites first come into sunlight, and by the time they enter eclipse, it has migrated to the other side.’(5)
But what could the Russian craft be interested in specifically? To be honest, at this point we can’t know and neither the Pentagon nor the Kremlin is dropping hints. However, given that the KH-11 uses similar optics to the Hubble Space Telescope albeit with more advanced, high-tech and light-weight mirrors, it is not difficult to imagine the kinds of data the satellite is capable of capturing. And some observers suggest that the maneuver was less an exercise in spying on the spy bird but more a matter of posturing on the part of Russian authorities. In the last six years, Russia has launched a handful of inspection craft to match those of the US, Japan, China, and Sweden, the purpose of which has been somewhat of a mystery. A launch in 2013, for instance, of a Russian Rokot booster carried not the usual three communications satellites but four craft. Equally odd was the fact that one of the craft, Kosmos 2491, was self-propelling and entered into an orbit distinctly different from its counterparts. According to an article in The Daily Beast, the following 18 months saw the Russian administration launching two more ‘mysterious, maneuvering spacecraft, each time sneaking it into orbit as part of a routine commsat launch.’(6)
These perhaps clandestine launchings occurred during a time of heightening tensions between East and West over the conflict in Ukraine – a ‘synchronicity’ that is hard to overlook. Moreover, we now know that the craft – at least on the American side – are being used for military reconnaissance purposes. In August 2019, in a move that left the intelligence services in a state of shock, President Trump tweeted out an image of the destruction of an Iranian rocket launch facility captured by USA224, another KH-11 satellite. According to Popular Mechanics, a publication focused on innovation, in science, technology, and the automotive industry, the ‘release of the image by Trump startled the intelligence community—not only is the hardware classified, but so are its images—and it reveals the approximate capabilities of the U.S. spy satellite network. As a result, the president’s move set off fierce debate about whether it was strategic or a simple gaffe that might have ultimately compromised the intelligence agency’s work. Images from KH-11 satellites have only been released a handful of times in their nearly 50-year history, twice by individuals eventually convicted of espionage.’(7)
So what is the future of these two satellites orbiting the Earth apparently in lockstep with each other? Right now, we really can only hypothesize. The Russian craft maybe the next generation of space-based weapons to ‘upset the orbital balance of power, at a time when government agencies, armies, scientists, and everyday people—in the United States, especially—depend on satellites for communications, surveillance, science, and navigation’ or their purpose may be deliberately obscured yet peaceful. With that said, the fact that craft such as Cosmos 2542 are ‘up there’ and we don’t have a clear understanding why is disconcerting to say the least. As David Axe writes in his article, when another nation ‘quietly boosts three highly maneuverable and potentially armed spacecraft into orbit and then declines to explain their purpose, it’s sure to keep U.S. military officials awake at night, staring into the night sky, wondering just what the fleet-footed little […] robots are up to.’(8)
Leave it to us to give you another question to ponder the next time you go out to stare at the sky and the infinite inky blackness of space.
Are you a sat-tracker? Have you been following the debate about Cosmos 2542? What is your interpretation of the satellite’s change in course? We’d love to know your thoughts!