Even in space, it seems, one can’t have a conversation without the signal being monitored. And it appears Luch has struck again.
The latter is a Russian satellite that sidles up to other satellites in geostationary orbit, stays for a while, then moves along — sparking obvious concerns that it is monitoring and recording intelligence data.
Or, who knows what. The Russians aren’t talking, and clearly, it isn’t stopping by to say hello or share a vodka. As it has been doing this for some time, other scientists fear it could cause a needless collision.
Since launching in September 2014, a Russian satellite known as Luch or Olymp has caused friction in the national security space community as it traverses across geostationary orbit, C4ISR.net reported.
Geosynchronous satellites are separated into wide segments of space in order to avoid interference with each other, but Russian operators have ignored that setup with Luch, preferring instead to travel through the orbit, creeping up on other commercial and government satellites.
By invading that space and snuggling up to another satellite, some worry Luch is theoretically able to intercept the ground signals directed at the targeted satellite, though it’s not clear from the limited amount of publicly available information if this is happening, the report said.
On Aug. 27, TS Kelso of CelesTrak, which tracks and provides orbital information, reported that Luch was now approaching an Intelsat satellite.
Each day, Kelso reviews a list of all satellites that are moving in geostationary orbit. Most of the time, what Kelso sees are satellites drifting a bit in their assigned orbit, relocating to a new area or even being decommissioned.
But knowing Luch’s history of invading other satellites’ space, Kelso kept an eye out as it moved and took notice when it stopped moving again ― right next to Intelsat 17.
According to the Secure World Foundation’s Global Counterspace Capabilities report released in April, Luch has stopped briefly in 17 different longitudes in the last five years, the report said.
But little is known about Luch. The Russian government hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with information about the secretive space vehicle.
According to Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States’ understanding of Luch is also limited due to its location and the lack of public information about the satellite.
“It’s about 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth. So it’s not something we can see with great fidelity, even with a powerful telescope,” said Harrison. “But what we can do is observe it’s behavior, and it’s been up there for several years.”
“What we’ve observed is this satellite moves around the geostationary belt and it will sidle up close to other satellites and stay there for a while, and then move along to other satellites,” explained Harrison. “So that suggests that it’s some sort of inspection or data collection vehicle.”
Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit focused on sustainability in space, agreed.
“In general, what we’re seeing from the U.S., Russia and China so far […] are growing interest in two activities related to national security. One is collecting intelligence and the other is space situational awareness,” said Weeden. “Our best guess for what Luch is doing is some form of electronic intelligence collection.”
Kelso added that Luch is moving on to new satellites faster than it used to.
“It looks like initially, the ‘visits’ were many months long but have gotten shorter over time,” he said.
And while concern over data collection is real, Harrison added that to date observers have seen no offensive capability. That means that beyond encryption, there’s little that companies can do to protect their satellites or data — if they even need protecting.
“Just inspecting is not offensive. It’s not inherently destabilizing, but, you know, it does make people uncomfortable when the country doing the inspection is a potential adversary, like Russia,” said Harrison.