Gen. John W. "Jay" Raymond, R, Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, called a maneuver by Russian satellites to closely observe a U.S. spy satellite, unusual and disturbing on Monday. File Photo by Ron Sachs/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 10 (UPI) -- The U.S. Space Force is watching two Russian satellites that appear to be observing a U.S. satellite at close range, Gen. John "Jay" Raymond said on Monday.
Kosmos 2542, which was launched in November and split into two separate satellites when it reached earth orbit, is in the same plane as USA 245, a secretive satellite launched in 2013 by the National Reconnaissance Office.
Both the Russian and U.S. spacecraft travel in a plane between 250 and 550 miles above the earth's surface, where many of about 2,200 orbiting craft reside. The Russian and U.S. satellites pass each other, approximately every 10 days, but on Jan. 20 the Russian spacecraft came within 100 miles of the U.S. craft.
"We view this behavior as unusual and disturbing," Raymond, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command told Time. "It has the potential to create a dangerous situation in space."
Kosmos is a small "inspection satellite," capable of using thrusters to maneuver close to other spacecraft for observation. USA 245 is one of four NRO spy satellites used to photograph various parts of Earth, notably U.S. enemies.
Russia's motive for the satellite stalking is unknown, and some observers have noted that satellites like Kosmos could be equipped with weapons, including lasers and explosives. It is the first time that space is the arena for an encounter similar to those of fighter planes or warships between the United States and an enemy.
Prior to the Kosmos launch, the Russian Defense Minister announced the satellite would be used to inspect other spacecraft, but it was presumed it would be checking other Russian space hardware and not U.S. spy satellites. Additionally, there is no protocol in place for limiting distances between rival spacecraft in space.
"One of the big concerns is that we don't have any agreed rules or norms about how these close approaches should be done," said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Federation, a cybersecurity industry group. "That means an increased risk someone might get the wrong perception about what's going on, perhaps even mistaking it for an attack."