The Russian government says it recently detected a group of satellites that are spying on Russia while orbiting the Earth camouflaged as “space junk”. The finding was announced on Sunday, April 12, on the Moscow-based Zvezda television station, which is wholly owned by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. For much of the day, Zvezda marked “Space Day”, which has been annually commemorated in Russia ever since 1961, when cosmonaut Yury Gagarin journeyed in outer space.
The station hosted Major General Oleg Maidanovich, of the country’s Aerospace Defense Forces (ADF), in a program entitled “Special Operations in Space”. Maidanovich told the program that specialists in the ADF’s Intelligence Center uncovered “a newly deployed group of space satellites” that were designed to collect signals intelligence (SIGINT) from Russian telecommunications and other electronic systems. However, the satellites had been disguised to appear and behave like “space junk”, he said. By “space junk”, Maidanovich was referring to rocket stages, old and defunct communications satellites, and various other fragments of manmade devices that have ended up in outer space since the 1950s and are endlessly orbiting the Earth.
Maidanovich said that it was not unusual for space reconnaissance agencies to camouflage their spy satellites as space debris and deploy them into Earth’s orbit in a dormant state for several years. Then, once the target country’s space reconnaissance counterintelligence forces disregard the device as a piece of space junk, the satellite is suddenly reawakened and begins to collect SIGINT. For that reason, he said, Russia’s ADF monitors at least a fifth of a total of 100,000 objects orbiting planet Earth on any given day, due to concerns that such objects may be used for SIGINT collection by rival spy agencies.
The Russian ADF commander declined a request to identify the country believed to be behind the alleged camouflaged spy satellites, saying it was “not necessary to do so at the present time”. He added that his office typically notifies the Kremlin when it detects disguised spy satellites, and that the decision on whether to shoot them down is made “on a national level”.