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US assesses Russia launched space weapon in path of American satellite

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WASHINGTON:

Russia last week launched a satellite that US intelligence officials believe to be a weapon capable of inspecting and attacking other satellites, the US Space Command said on Tuesday as the Russian spacecraft trails a US spy satellite in orbit.

Russia's Soyuz rocket blasted off from its Plesetsk launch site some 500 miles (800 km) north of Moscow on May 16, deploying in low-Earth orbit at least nine satellites including COSMOS 2576, a type of Russian military "inspector" spacecraft US officials have long condemned as exhibiting reckless space behavior.

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We have observed nominal activity and assess it is likely a counterspace weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit," a USSPACECOM spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters.

"Russia deployed this new counterspace weapon into the same orbit as a US government satellite."

COSMOS 2576 resembled previously deployed counterspace payloads from 2019 and 2022, the statement added, referring to past Russian tactics of deploying satellites close to sensitive US spy satellites.

US intelligence agencies had been expecting the launch of COSMOS 2576 and informed allies of their assessment of the satellite before its deployment in space, according to a US official familiar with the intelligence. The launch also included civilian satellites deployed to different orbits.

"This mix of military and civilian payloads was totally unexpected. Never seen that before on a Russian launch," said Bart Hendrickx, a longtime analyst tracking Russia's space program.

COSMOS 2576 appears similar to satellites Russia launched in 2019 and 2022, and which the US also claimed were counterspace weapons. The 2019 satellite ejected an object into space and closely followed a satellite from the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence agency overseeing spy satellites.

COSMOS 2576, as of Tuesday, has not gone near a US satellite, but space analysts observed it to be in the same orbital ring as USA 314, a bus-sized NRO satellite launched in April 2021.

The Russian satellite appears to be trailing USA 314's orbital path at a faster speed, suggesting the two will eventually come into closer proximity, according to a Reuters review of orbital data in Space CoMMAnd's public satellite catalog.

The satellite's deployment comes as the US alleges Russia to be developing a space-based nuclear weapon capable of destroying entire networks of satellites. US officials believe Russia has launched at least one satellite, COSMOS 2553, related to its nuclear space weapon program, according to officials familiar with the intelligence.

However, US officials have said Russia has not deployed a nuclear weapon in space.

Since invading Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has shrouded much of its space activities in secrecy and threatened to attack US satellites aiding the Ukrainian military's defense, such as SpaceX's Starlink, a vast network of thousands of internet satellites in low-Earth orbit.

The US and Russia have been sparring at the United Nations Security Council over satellite weapons.

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