France Questions Russian Satellite with “Big Ears”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly took a page out of Little Red Riding Hood when she recently called out a Russian satellite for having “big ears”. While she stopped short of giving any concrete details, it was a rare and not terribly veiled accusation that Russia is using their Luch-Olymp spacecraft to perform orbital espionage.

Luch satellite conceptual drawing from NASA

At a speech in Toulouse, Parly was quoted as saying: “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.” and “this little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”

The target of this potential act of space piracy is the Athena-Fidus satellite, a joint venture between France and Italy to provide secure communication for the military and emergency services of both countries. Launched in 2014, it provides 3 Gbit/s throughput via the Ka-band for mobile receivers on the ground and in drones.

This isn’t the first time Russia’s Luch class of vehicles has been the subject of scrutiny. In 2015 it was reported that one such craft maneuvered to within 10 kilometers of the Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 901 geostationary communications satellites, prompting classified meetings at the United States Defense Department. As geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at 3.07 km/s, a 10 km approach is exceptionally dangerous. Even a slight miscalculation could cause an impact within seconds.

Could Stealth Satellites Be In Our Future?

Much to the chagrin of shadowy spy agencies everywhere, this sort of orbital cat and mouse is easily detectable from the ground. When spy planes became easy to detect using radar, the next step was to evade that detection. Are we on a path to satellites that are transparent to radar?

Gregory Charvat, author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems and occasional contributor here at Hackaday, tells us that building a stealth satellite is no easy task. “Just like how we had to re-invent the aircraft to make the first stealth aircraft, to make a stealth satellite one would have to fundamentally re-invent the satellite as we know it today.”

Likening it to the immense cost and effort it took to develop stealth aircraft like the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Gregory says developing a satellite which could hide from radar would likely be more trouble than it’s worth for most applications. Space is already hard enough. “Maintaining that special shape that reflects radar away from your aircraft and including all of these essential peripherals is a big challenge” Gregory says, which results in “compromise and high maintenance costs.”

Beyond attempting to eavesdrop on communications, military insiders say that these close passes by Luch satellites could also be “dry-runs” for anti-satellite operations; either by using a directed energy weapon to disable the target spacecraft, or simply running into it. With events like these, and the commitment by the United States to establish a Space Force in the coming years, efforts to militarize space seem to be on the rise.

[via DefenseNews]

34 thoughts on “France Questions Russian Satellite with “Big Ears”

  1. USA-202 / MENTOR 4 and USA-207/PAN have been photographed in flagrante delicto by amateur satellite-trackers doing the *exact* same thing to Yahsat 1b and Thuraya-2, and have been tracked doing similar manoeuvres, all targeting various communication satellites (such as Paksat 1R):

    Interestingly, per that article, USA-202 took over the Thuraya-2 coverage from USA-139/Mentor-2 — which was launched in *1998*!

    Whatever Luch may be doing with its big ears (MENTOR 4 allegedly deployed a 100-meter-wide antenna in space, this job requires big ears indeed), the US has seemingly had the technical capability to do the same for 2 decades.

  2. There are at least two stealth satellites up there – the “MISTY” class NRO satellites, USA 53 and USA 144, are two of the only satellites which have disappeared to amateur satellite observers on SeeSat-L. On launch both of them appeared to release decoys objects, before maneuvering and vanishing.

    They’re suspected to have a cone-shaped inflatable shield pointing down – this’d reflect radar away from the source, visually reflect space around it, and allows you to put all your thermal stuff behind the shield facing outwards.

    1. It would also block them from recieving radio signals from earth. Any antenna that can recieve can also reflect a signal, so total radar shielding is impossible unless you’re burying your head in the figurative sand.

      Considering they can radar-track space junk that is <10 cm in size, it's also difficult to have an optical lens facing the earth, because that would also show up in the trackers. The question is rather, if the objects are hiding, they're hiding in plain sight masquerading as debris and they are being tracked – it's just that the people doing the tracking are told to hush hush about what the object really is.

      1. My understanding with the MISTY satellites is that they flip over just before they take their pictures, providing stealth right up until the last moment. This (mostly) solves the issue of the person you’re trying to photograph picking up your recon sat on radar and covering up the interesting stuff. Without warning, they don’t have time to pull the ICBMs back into the hanger or whatever the case may be.

        Presumably the satellite has some level of autonomous control, I.E. you can tell it where and when to do the flip and it will execute it automatically. Like you said, when the shield is deployed its controllers can’t talk to it either.

        1. Also, if your target is another satellite, you wouldn’t ever need to expose yourself to anyone on the ground. Have your antennas on the sides to use relay systems and you are now totally invisible to the earth.

      2. “It would also block them from recieving radio signals from earth”…

        there is no reason a signal to such a stealth satellite has to be direct. You could have a relay further out that effectively looks down onto the unshielded back of the stealth satellite. Also a long antenna could extend from the back of the stealth satellite, remain in the shadow of the nose cone and enhance relay options.

      3. You make quite a few assumptions. Assumptions that are unfounded.

        “It would also block them from recieving radio signals from earth.”

        Who said it needs to communicate with an earth station? It could *just* as easily be communicating with another satellite to the side or behind it. All GPS satellites communicate with each other, and many telecommunications satellites do as well. Who is to say what the purpose of this satellite is? Maybe it’s purpose is to monitor other satellites.

        >it’s also difficult to have an optical lens facing the earth, because that would also show up in the trackers.

        Who says it’s only purpose is to look down? It may not have a lens at all, or one that doesn’t look down, but sideways or backwards.

        >it’s just that the people doing the tracking are told to hush hush about what the object really is.

        Maybe, but that doesn’t exclude amateur trackers.

    2. An obvious way for a “stealthy satellite” would be to give it a dish that is bigger than the satellite itself, with sharp thin edges on the sides and hide the satellite behind it’s dish. This would have a very much reduced signature to any direction except where the dish is pointed at.

      But a (hinged?) cone which does not only deflects radar in the “wrong” direction, but also absorbs most of it will probably be better.

      I also very much doubt that this “stealth” stuff would be more difficult in space. A very big advantage you have up there is that there is no need for aerodynamic shapes. I can only assume there are already many more of these “stealth satellites” up there than some want to let you believe.

    1. Nope, this is “Put a satellite near another one so that you can pick up the directional signals aimed at it”. The X-37 is intended to capture satellites and modify them (Sabotage, pump it full of false info, or just straight up steal it).

      1. I don’t think the X-37 is going to “pocket” many satellites with its 7 × 4 ft cargo bay. That’s quite a bit smaller than even the stowed dimensions of a satellite like Athena-Fidus, never mind it probably being 3-4x times heavier than the payload capacity of the X-37.

        It might snatch up some unsuspecting CubeSats though.

  3. I always find it funny when there are accusations and complaints against Russia and China for doing things the USA have been doing for a long time. Yes, the “western world” is protected by the glorious US and the Pax Americana. Except when the US use the information to gain advantages for themselves and their closest allies (read: beggars at the rich mans table grasping at crumbs of information falling off). The US of course have no problem using information about their beggars to gain economic advantage.

    Yes Russia is interested in gaining information, just as France is known to be, the UK, Germany, Sweden*, Italy, etc. Only the capabilities vary. For example, that the Russians are trying to tap deep underwater communications lines now is a bit strange to complain about when the US have done that since the 70’s…
    (* Sweden relatively high up due to the vicinity to strategic Russian installations plus traditionally strong signal intelligence)

  4. “As geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at 3.07 km/s, a 10 km approach is exceptionally dangerous. Even a slight miscalculation could cause an impact within seconds.”
    That’s not how orbital mechanics work (or even everyday newtonian mechanics). It isn’t because the satellites are orbiting at 3km/s that their relative velocities are anywhere near that.

    1. The relative velocity between them isn’t 3km/s, but it doesn’t need to be. A screwed up approach is still potentially seconds away from destroying both birds. Approaching at slightly off plane or failing to properly match velocity at target distance, and they could easily collide with more than enough velocity to be a terminal encounter before anyone has time to react. It really doesn’t take much, it’s not like these things have bumpers.

      You have to remember we aren’t talking about two static objects sitting in geosync orbits, one of them is actively moving around. The risk isn’t coming from when the Russian (or whoever) spy is sitting 10km behind it in orbit, it’s when it tries to enter or leave that orbit.

      1. I’m trying to decide if you are serious or trolling… If you’re serious, realise they are stationary in the sky when viewed from the Earth surface, ie they complete an orbit every 23:56 hours, ie the same amount of time it takes the Earth to complete a single full rotation.

        If you’re trolling then continue on about your business.

  5. That does bring up an interesting issue. With recent findings that “normal” computers are susceptible to acoustic attacks (listening in), are the secure satellites in space (most notable government) designed to defend against a satellite listening to it intently on the electromagnetic spectrum to try to derive it’s security keys, or the unencrypted communication?

    1. If comms are not encrypted, they are not secure, end of discussion…same goes for weak, known broken encryption. Nowadays it’s not hard to put so much crypto into comms, that by the time any attacker can decrypt it, the message will no longer be relevant.

      You will not get much out a communications satellite trying to (ab)use TEMPEST, as unlike your ordinary PC, it has to be quite well shielded to survive solar weather.
      Also, the satellite has no reason to decrypt anything, it’s either just a dumb repeater or an active part of a packet network.
      Keep in mind that the idea of actually stealing a satellite and bringing it back down for analysis is not new, the Space Shuttle was one of those attempts…

    2. “With recent findings that “normal” computers are susceptible to acoustic attacks (listening in),”
      If you are talking about TEMPEST, I don’t think that is “new”, if you are talking about behind able to detect keyclicks over a phone line (each key makes a “slightly” different sound due to its position on the keyboard), that is not “new” either.

    3. Most communication satellites make no effort to interpret the data flowing through them; they just retransmit analog signals. This limits their capabilities, but greatly reduces the amount of radiation-hardened electronics needed and provides a measure of future-proofing (no need to upgrade the satellite for a new modulation or protocol, just change the ground equipment). Some LEO constellations do interpret and route traffic, e.g. Iridium, but the radiation environment in LEO (at the lower altitudes, anyway) is more benign than in GEO.

      Assuming the military com sats follow the same philosophy, listening close to the satellite would provide no more information on the signal’s content than listening close to the ground stations. But if you can’t get close to those ground stations, or don’t know where they are to begin with, then eavesdropping on the bird could be productive even without being able to decrypt the traffic. Learning when and where transmissions happen could be quite informative.

  6. After watching various “Space Force debunking” videos I’m left with the impression that satellites by their very natures are doomed to be ridiculously vulnerable for something that nations’ millitarys actually depend on. A satellite could easily be taken out by radiation from a solar flare, a nuke detonated in space or even just small projectiles shot from a satellite with a retrograde orbit. Those first two wouldn’t just take out one they would take out nearly all of them. To shield a satellite from such disasters and attacks would require adding mass. That means it no longer can reach orbit.

    If I were leader of a nation it wouldn’t be half as as dependent on satellites as the world claims to be. Sure, they would still be used for civilian and spy purposes but I would have a secret network in place of shortwave relay stations for military communications and something similar to Loran C for navigation.

    When the enemy starts taking out satellites that’s ok. They are going to lose theirs too when the space junk starts multiplying. Being prepared for the situation that’s my advantage!

    1. The military is a huge investor for fast deployment of satellites in the event some major event does occur that takes out key comm and navigation satellites. Also, if it was an attack and not a natural event, it would be considered an act of war and I’m sure the US would have no qualms against launching a bunch of anti-satellite weapons to take out adversary spacecraft. It’s mutually assured destruction all over again.

        1. Strange how space is like a new frontier to some. Cyber makes sense since isn’t ARPA net anymore and we’re getting ripped off tremendously by corporations that use for the most part already paid for infrastructure with upgrades we didn’t require in the wireless world. What happened to fiber optic and better cabling? Short term profiteering interests I’m thinking.

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