Monday 20 May 2024

The Russian KOSMOS 2576 launch of May 16, and USA 314: another 'inspector satellite'? [UPDATED]

click to enlarge


 (this blogpost reflects discussions with and information provided by Bart Hendrickx, Bob Christy and Jonathan McDowell)

In a previous blogpost I wrote about a Russian launch into SSO from Plesetsk on May 16. According to Roscosmos, the launch was at 21:21:29 UTC.

Based on the Sun-Synchronous orbit indicated by the launch azimuth I initially suspected this to be a new IMINT mission, but now I am not so sure

IMINT is part of it, but not all, and the primary payload, KOSMOS 2576, might actually be another inspector satellite, this time targetting the American KH-11 ADVANCED CRYSTAL spy satellite USA 314 (2021-032A), as suggested by Bob Christy.

The launch inserted at least 9 objects into space (2024-092A to J), and possibly more: all in basically the same orbital plane (with small subgroups), but at different orbital altitudes. Based on the nine objects catalogued so far (status 20 May 2024), four groups can be discerned, based on orbital period and inclination:

GROUP     ORBIT (km)  INC     PERIOD   OBJECT(S) possible ID
I         451 x 435   97.25   93.45    A         KOSMOS 2576
II        796 x 780   98.59   100.62   G,H,J     Rassvet
IIIa      552 x 532   97.59   95.52    D,E,F,K   SITRO-AIS
IIIb      548 x 531   97.59   95.45    B,C       Zorkiy 2M

As expected, Roscosmos has announced the primary military payload to be designated KOSMOS 2576. It is likely object A (see below) that stands out as a lone object in orbital altitude and inclination. 

Also part of this launch, according to sources, are three civilian Rassvet satellites that provide high speed internet connectivity; and (as announced by Sputnix) two civil Zorkiy 2M earth observation satellites, and four civil SITRO-AIS satellites (the latter six all cubesats). This means that at least one satellite has not been catalogued yet, if these numbers are correct. [edit: this fourth satellite has now also been catalogued, as object K]

To make it even more complex, some analysts believed the launch to have included three military Razbeg Optical reconnaissance satellites as well. But this now seems less likely.

The orbital plane that the primary payload, Kosmos 2576 was launched into, might not be random. As was first pointed out by Bob Christy, the orbital plane closely matches that of the American KH-11 ADVANCED CRYSTAL spy satellite USA 314 (2021-032A).

In the past, we have seen this happen before. In August 2022, Kosmos 2558 was inserted into the orbital plane of the American KH-11 spy satellite  USA 326 (see this earlier blogpost), making close approaches each 5 days. Earlier, in 2020, Kosmos 2542 and its spawn Kosmos 2543 were inserted into the orbital plane of the American KH-11 spy satellite USA 245, also making close approaches.

Object A, the primary candidate for Kosmos 2576, differs in RAAN with USA 314 by only 0.02 degrees, and in inclination by only 0.8 degrees. Its current orbital altitude (451 x 436 km) is lower than that of USA 314 (769 x 548 km), but both orbital altitude and inclination are the same as that of a previous 'inspector satellite', Kosmos 2558 (see earlier blogpost). Object A might raise its orbit in the future or, like Kosmos 2542 did in 2020, spawn a second satellite that moves upwards in orbit. It will be interesting to see what object A will or will not do in the near future.

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The reason to see the lone group I object, object A as the primary payload (Kosmos 2576) is the following: 

First, as already mentioned, its orbital plane closely matched that of USA 314, and as Bob Christy noted,  its orbit in terms of altitude and inclination closely matches that of a previous 'inspector satellite' that targetted a US KH-11 satellite, Kosmos 2558

Second: when propagated backwards to the time of launch, the object is placed close to Plesetsk; and its orbital plane passes right over the stage deorbit area from Navigational Warning NAVAREA XII 330/24 in the Pacific Ocean (see map below, and see also previous post for maps and discussion), related to the initial launch phase. This indicates that object A is the primary payload and the first of the objects to be released into orbit. 

click m ap to enlarge

By contrast, the three group II objects (G, H, J) at ~780 km do not match the deorbit area in the Pacific well at all (as can be seen in the map above), and back-propagated to the launch time they do not come out near Plesetsk. This indicates manoeuvers before their orbit insertion.

The orbital insertion sequence of the various objects from this launch was probably as follows:

(1) launch into 97.24 inclined, 435 x 451 km orbit, insertion of object A (primary payload);
(2) manoeuver up into 98.59 inclined, 780 x 796 km orbit, insertion of objects G,H,J (secondary payloads);
(3) manoever down into 97.59 inclined, 535 x 552 km orbit, insertion of objects D,E,F,K;
(4) slightly lower apogee, no inclination change, 531 x 548 km orbit, insertion of objects B,C;
(5) Fregat stage deorbit reentry ~10h 20m after launch.

The reasoning behind this sequence is the following:

In addition to the Navigational Warnings which I discussed above and in a previous post, Bob Christy found a NOTAM in the Indian Ocean which is likely for the Fregat stage deorbit, with a time window starting some 10 hours after launch (suggesting a prolonged coast phase and/or multiple manoeuvers):

F1791/24 NOTAMN
Q) YMMM/QWMLW/IV/BO/W/000/999/2815S07736E500
B) 2405170700 C) 2405220900
D) DAILY 0700-0900
CREATED: 14 May 2024 12:33:00

The orbital plane of the group III objects (see table earlier in this post) B, C, D, E,  F and K passes over this area, 10h 20m after launch (i.e. near 7:40 UTC, May 17).This could indicate that these objects were the last to be released, before deorbit of the Fregat stage. The orbital planes of group I and II do not match this deorbit area that well, passing somewhat east and west of it. 

click map to enlarge

This leaves group II objects G, H J, the ones in the highest orbit (~780 km), whose orbital plane matches neither the Pacific Ocean nor Indian Ocean deorbit areas particularly well. This indicates manoeuvers both before and after their release, suggesting their orbital insertion was between that of group I and group III.

As to the possible identities of the objects from group II, IIIa and IIIb:

The orbital inclination and period (95.45 minutes and 97.6 degrees) of the two group IIIb objects (B, C) match those of two objects (2024-092B and C) from a previous launch that included Zorkiy 2M satellites. So objects B and C of the current launch are probably the two Zorkiy 2M payloads.

The orbital inclination and period  (95.52 minutes and 97.6 degrees) of the three group IIIa objects (D, E, F, K) match those of both earlier Rassvet and SITRO-AIS launches, but their number matches the number of SITRO-AIS payloads announced in this launch.

The three group II objects (G, H, J) in the higher ~780 km orbit match neither previous Rassvet, SITRO-AIS or Zorkiy 2M launches. But by a process of ellimination they must be the three Rassvet payloads announced - if there are no other objects catalogued in the future.

The picture presented here might be revised if more objects are catalogued. For now, this is my best interpretation. It will be particularly interesting to see what object A will do.


UPDATE 22 May 2024:

US United Nations ambassadeur Robert Wood has, in a May 20 UN Security Council debate, accused Russia of launching a 'counterspace weapon' into Low earth Orbit on May 16. The claim was later repeated, including a mention of it being in "the same orbit" as a US Government satellite, by Pentagon spokesman Brig. General Pat Ryder.

This clearly refers to Kosmos 2576 (object A) - the US military evidently also thinks the co-orbital character of Kosmos 2576 with USA 314 is no coincidence

Russia flatly dismisses the suggestion, calling it "fake news".

Currently, there are two Russian satellites in LEO that are suspiciously co-planar with an American KH-11 ADVANCED CRYSTAL electro-optical reconnaissance satellite: Kosmos 2558 (2022-089A) co-planar with USA 326 (2022-009A); and now Kosmos 2576 (2024-092A) co-planar with USA 314 (2021-032A). Kosmos 2558 currently makes approaches to ~50 km to USA 326 each 7 days.

click image to enlarge

For those who want to compare, here are two recent orbits for USA 314 and USA 326 based on amateur tracking data:

USA 314
1 48247U 21032A   24141.96990730 0.00002000  00000-0  27073-3 0    05
2 48247  98.0438 254.1015 0157205 111.3087 248.6912 14.70745533    09
USA 326
1 51445U 22009A   24141.98253796 0.00017500  00000-0  79138-3 0    00
2 51445  97.4250 239.7279 0011614 145.1315 214.8683 15.20909891    06

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