Skip to main content Columnist Leonard David

A Revealing Look at the Once Secret Spysat Lacrosse 5

U.S. Spysat Lacrosse 5
A view of the U.S. spy satellite Lacrosse 5 as seen through a tracking telescope on Earth. (Image credit: Altai Optical Laser Center/V.P. Aleshin, E.A. Grishin, V.D. Shargorodsky, D.D. Novgorodtsev)

A team of scienitsts in Russia is using the Altai Optical Laser Center (AOLC) near Savvushka to track various spacecraft in orbit from the ground, including - it seems - a vintage U.S. spy satellite.

The intent of their work is to help solve problems in space surveillance. They report that the use of adaptive optics at AOLC allows the analysis of spacecraft that run into emergency situations. A paper authored by the Russian team is circulating in satellite-watcher circles. That paper contains a revealing look at one of their observational targets: the U.S. spysat Lacrosse 5

That National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite was lofted on April 30, 2005. [Declassifed U.S. Spy Satellites in Pictures]

Lacrosse spacecraft were equipped with synthetic aperture radar as its prime look-see instrument, permitting day/night imaging of select targets. 

Altai Optical Laser Center (AOLC) near Savvushka, Russia. (Image credit: V.P. Aleshin, E.A. Grishin, V.D. Shargorodsky, D.D. Novgorodtsev)


It appears that Lacrosse 5 has a planar radar antenna, unlike the dish antennas of earlier Lacrosses, notes satellite watcher, Allen Thomson, who recently posted the Russian paper.

While once a hush-hush satellite, the NRO declassified the existence of the Lacrosse satellite constellation in 2008.

The Russian document also includes an analysis of the emergency with the Russian Mars-bound Phobos-Grunt probe that went awry shortly after launch in November 2011. It fell back to Earth in January 2012.

For a read of "Altay Optic-Laser Center Capability to Satellites Emergencies Estimation," read: 3 Aleshin.pdf

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin's 2013 book "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration," published by National Geographic, with a new updated paperback version to be released in May. Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook and Google+

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: