Friday 13 October 2023

Did Russia position a geostationary satellite over Israel last month? No.

screenshot quote Budanov in interview with Ukranian Pravda

Based on this interview with Kyrylo Budanov, the Chief of the Intelligence Directorate of the Ukranian military, in the Ukranian Pravda newspaper, a story is going around claiming that Russia relocated a geostationary satellite over Israel in the last week of September, with the suggestion that this was part of an operation to help Iran and the terror organisation Hamas to commit the latter's atrocious assault on Israel.

I was asked by a journalist and a number of people on social media whether I had any evidence that could confirm Budanov's claim. 

In short: this claim cannot be substantiated and makes little sense.

The date mentioned (24 September) for the purported relocation implies that the satellite in question should be LUCH (OLYMP) 2 (2023-031A).  This is the second in the OLYMP-K series of SIGINT satellites operated by the Russian military, and was launched in March of this year.

Below is a plot of the longitudes of all operational Russian geostationary assets (civilian and military) in a wide swat of longitude spanning Africa to west Asia. Only LUCH (OLYMP) 2, indicated by the larger red dots, changes position starting near the mentioned date of September 25/26 (the relocation was completed by October 4), moving from 9.0 E to 3.2 E.

(the other satellite slowly drifting from 7 E to 15E, is the commercial satellite EXPRESS AM-33 which has been drifting for over a year, since august 2022).

click diagram to enlarge


Given the date quoted, Budanov's remarks clearly seem to indicate LUCH (OLYMP) 2 as the satellite in question. But it makes no sense, because:

(1) moving from longitude 9 E to 3.2 E, it is not located near Israel, the difference in longitude being almost 30 degrees;

(2) it is moving westwards, away rather than towards the longitude of Israel.

So Budanov's claim is quite a stretch (and I wonder if someone in his staff perhaps simply misinterpreted "3.2 E" as "32 E" and jumped the gun).

Moreover, the repositioning of the satellite has to be seen in the light that this is an OLYMP-K class satellite

These SIGINT satellites serve a similar role as the US satellite PAN (see my 2016 article in The Space Review for more on PAN): they rove from commercial telecom satellite to commercial telecom satellite, to eavesdrop on communications and map which sources are utilizing the satellite. Hence, their targets of interest are other satellites.

This behaviour can be well seen in this plot of longitude over time for LUCH (OLYMP) 2's predecessor, LUCH (OLYMP) 1  (2014-058A, aka 'OLYMP-K'). At least 24 relocations over the past 9 years can be seen (and each time, it was put next to another commercial telecom satellite:

LUCH (OLYMP) 1 behaviour. Click to enlarge


The newer sistership,  LUCH (OLYMP) 2 has only recently been launched, on 12 March 2023. In the 8 months since, it has been relocated 3 times (including the relocation now under discussion):

LUCH (OLYMP) 2 behaviour. Click image to enlarge

It is clearly following in the footsteps of its predecessor LUCH (OLYMP) 1, as it too is put close to commercial telecom satellites during these relocations

For example, here it is on September 20 (a few days before its last relocation) imaged by me from Leiden in the Netherlands. At that time the satellite was positioned very close to Eutelsat (KA Sat) 9A - the true distance between the two satellites was about 22 km at the moment of imaging:


click to enlarge

 And here it is on October 14, after relocation to 3.2 E, close to Eutelsat 3B:


click to enlarge

The targets of  LUCH/OLYMP satellites are other geostationary satellites, on which they eavesdrop. That they frequently relocate, is a normal, well-established pattern.

Combined with the fact that LUCH (OLYMP) 2 is actually not located over Israel at all but almost 30 degrees more West in longitude, there is no credible evidence that the late September relocation had anything to do with the events in Israel on October 7.

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