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Why Did U.S. Spy Satellite Visit International Space Station?

June 9, 2017

Super interesting.

On May 1st at Cape Canaveral, SpaceX launched a classified satellite (USA 276) for the US National Reconnaissance Office. Watching the spysat go into orbit, analysts around the world realized something interesting. The orbit of USA 276 was similar to that of the International Space Station and could theoretically make close approaches to the orbiting outpost. 

On June 3rd, that’s exactly what happened. “USA 276 made a close approach and effectively circled the ISS,” reports Marco Langbroek of Leiden, the Netherlands.  

Why is an American spy satellite buzzing the ISS? Maybe it’s a chance encounter. Senior satellite analyst Ted Molczan has published arguments for and against that possibility. “I am inclined to believe that the close conjunctions between USA 276 and ISS are intentional,” he says.

Molczan points out that USA 276 might be visiting the ISS to test Raven–a technology demonstration project on the ISS researchers are using to develop spacecraft autopilot systems.  Raven has visible, infrared, and lidar sensors that can track incoming spacecraft, feeding the data to an onboard processor for decision-making about rendezvous and docking.

“I imagine that USA 276 could add to the Raven data set as follows,” speculates Molczan. “If it can rendezvous, then it could keep station for long periods, during which it could change its attitude to present the sensors with a variety of views, under a variety of lighting conditions. The total data collected could potentially far exceed that from the other visiting spacecraft.”

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