American intelligence analysts have been watching a pair of Russian satellites, identified as Cosmos 2542 and 2543, for months. Or rather, they have been watching them since they were one satellite, deployed by a Soyuz rocket that took off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Nov. 26, 2019. It was 11 days after that launch that the first satellite split in two, the second somehow “birthed” from the other, and no one in the U.S. military was happy about the new arrival. By mid-January, both Russian satellites had floated near a multibillion–dollar spacecraft known as KH-11, one of the U.S. military’s most powerful spy tools, part of a reconnaissance constellation code-named Keyhole/-CRYSTAL. It wasn’t clear whether the Cosmos satellites were threatening or surveilling the KH-11, which is said to have the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope, but it turned out that was only the start of the twins’ surprises.
After the U.S. expressed concern to Moscow through diplomatic channels early this year, the pair pulled away from the KH-11 and whizzed around the Earth at more than 17,000 m.p.h. Then, on July 15, with the U.S. analysts still tracking them, the “birthed” Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, fired a projectile into outer space, General John “Jay” Raymond, the top general of the newly created U.S. Space Force, told TIME. It was the first time the U.S. military has publicly alleged an instance of a space-based antisatellite weapons test, a troubling new development in the emerging theater of orbital warfare.
So all the major powers are playing in space with both civilian capabilities and military capabilities. I doubt any of them are innocent, but they are trying to outwit each other. We do know everything up in space is highly vulnerable, and as civilians we have come more and more to depend on satellites for navigation, time, and communications. Which is why today still we see radios in ships, mariners learning how to navigate with sextants, and amateur radio operators practising for blackouts. Convenience today can be gone tomorrow and even a short period can be disastrous. Devices that work off four or more satellite navigation systems are also wise to have.
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