Nov 17 2015

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Good ‘Luch’ with that, comrades

Reader Vic Moberg sends this comment:

A long & technical review of GEO rendezvous & proximity operations (RPO). (Part 1 is LEO). Has cool telescope video of Astra SATCOM cluster motion.

The title of the article is “Dancing in the dark redux: Recent Russian rendezvous and proximity operations in space”, and I addressed Luch in this post from 12 October. There, I surmised that Luch is a maneuverable SIGINT gatherer.

Here is the video to which Vic referred.

Yep — pretty cool.

There is a lot of good in this article, which basically provides history on all publicly available information on RPO operations. It also provides an excellent primer on maneuvering to GEO, is the topic of my following post.

Here is a summary of all the RPO missions in the article:

  • Luch (Russian, still operational). Amateur observers have noted detected transmission in the commercial UHF SATCOM band from it
  • NASA Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART), 2005
  • the SJ-12 and SJ-06F (both Chinese) in 2010
  • USAF XSS-10 and XSS-11, maneuvering around their Delta upper stage in 2003
  • USA 207 (or PAN), 2009
  • USA 257 (or CLIO), 2014 (still operational)
  • USAF Micro-satellite Technology Experiment (MiTEx), 2006
  • GSSAP satellites and ANGELS, 2014 (still operational)

Here’s a graph of Luch maneuvering around the Briz-KM upper stage that placed it in orbit — it gets so close to it that there’s speculation that they may have bumped:

Then, the article loses me, arguing that Russian and Chinese RPO activities are only in response to the fact that the US does it too (and was the first to do it). If only the US weren’t so belligerent, the author seems to argue, and if only we had a treaty to keep everyone in line! Oh, and the US should be more transparent with its satellite programs.

My response to that (mostly) drivel is

  • Your assumption seems to be that the Russians and the Chinese would never have done RPO missions if the US didn’t start them. Given the US’ dependency on satellites for comms and for imagery/sensing, and that RPO missions seem well suited for a space mine mission, our adversaries would have explored RPO options whether the US was or not.
  • Existing treaties to make space a non-militarized zone certainly didn’t stop the Chinese from blowing up a satellite in orbit back in 2007. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, adhering to treaties that we know will be ignored by everyone but us is insanity.

I will concede to one point the author made more strongly in the comments to his article rather than the article itself:

…there are also benefits from agreements even if they are broken. The importance of such agreements is not that they will always be honored, but rather that they help distinguish peaceful activities in space from hostile threats, and increasing the legitimacy of a self-defense response.

That is a valid point, but again the working assumption seems to be that we know that others will break treaties, but when they do, we’ll at least have a casus belli that we can formally cite. I’d rather not be hamstrung by treaties in the first place.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2015/11/17/good-luch-with-that-comrades/

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