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Pentagon space chief condemns 'irresponsible' launch of Russian inspector satellite

A Russian Soyuz rocket takes off at night, its exhaust plume glowing bright red.
A Russian Soyuz rocket launches the Kosmos 2558 military satellite from Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Aug. 1, 2022. (Image credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Pentagon is speaking out against Russia's launch of a spy satellite believed to be shadowing one of its American counterparts closely in the same orbit.

The Russian satellite, known as Kosmos 2558, launched on Aug. 1 and appears to have been placed in nearly the same orbit as a classified American reconnaissance satellite that launched on Feb. 2. According to Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek, as of Aug. 2 Kosmos 2558 is mirroring the American satellite's orbit with a difference of just 0.04 degrees (opens in new tab) and a separation of 37 miles (60 kilometers). 

"That's really irresponsible behavior," said Gen. James H. Dickinson, Commander of U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM) in a report (opens in new tab) released by NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. "We see that it's in a similar orbit to one of our high-value assets for the U.S. government. And so we'll continue like we always do, to continue to update that and track that," Dickinson continued.

Related: Did Russia just launch a spacecraft to stalk a US spy satellite?

An NBC News camera crew was allowed inside the U.S. Space
Command Joint Operations Center at Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado. According to the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt report, this is the first time that cameras have been allowed inside the facility. NSDC's mission is to gather and integrate data from a wide variety of satellites and ground-based monitoring stations, and then share that information throughout the U.S. military and intelligence community.

"We have some really good space capabilities today that will tell us almost immediately if there's been a launch," an unnamed Space Force officer says in NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt's report.

Kosmos 2558 is rumored to be a so-called "inspector satellite" capable of maneuvering close to other spacecraft, relatively speaking. Other Russian satellites have been observed in the past displaying the same behaviors.

The mission and capabilities of the American satellite being "stalked" by Kosmos 2558 are not known, but it is believed to be capable of collecting imagery intelligence.

This isn't the first time that the United States has condemned Russia's irresponsible activities in orbit. In 2021, Russia fired a missile to destroy one of its own defunct satellites, leaving behind thousands of pieces of trackable orbital debris, some of which prompted the International Space Station to maneuver out of harm's way

"Dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of outer space and clearly demonstrates that Russia's claims of opposing the weapons and weaponization of space are disingenuous and hypocritical," U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said at the time.

Editor's note: This story was updated for clarity at 10:15 a.m. EDT on Thursday (Aug. 11) to change "NBC News" to "NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt" and again at 1:30 p.m. EDT to change "Schriever Air Force Base" to "Schriever Space Force Base." and "Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center" to "National Space Defense Center."

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.