Secrecy News

Russia Images the LACROSSE Spysat

A Russian satellite tracking facility in Siberia has produced rarely-seen photographs of a U.S. intelligence satellite.

The U.S. Lacrosse radar satellite was captured in images generated at Russia’s Altay Optical Laser Center, apparently between 2005 and 2010. A selection of images was compiled and analyzed by Allen Thomson. See An Album of Images of LACROSSE Radar Reconnaissance Satellites Made by a 60 cm Adaptive Optics System at the G.S. Titov Altai Optical-Laser Center.

“The images contain enough information (range, angular scale) to perform a bit of technical intelligence (i.e., sophomore high school trigonometry) on the radar antenna size, which is a significant parameter affecting capability,” Mr. Thomson, a former CIA analyst, told Secrecy News.

While provocative, the intent of the imagery disclosure was obscure, he said.

“Why did the Russians release the images?  The US is highly paranoid about releasing resolved images of spysats, ours or others. The Russian paranoia is at least as great, so how did these images get out? What was the purpose?”

The images themselves seem to be mostly just a curiosity. But perhaps they underscore the growing visibility and the corresponding vulnerability of U.S. space-based assets.

“Our asymmetrical advantage in space also creates asymmetrical vulnerabilities,” said Gil Klinger, a defense intelligence official, last year. “Our adversaries recognize our dependence on space and continue to think of ways to respond to our space advantage.”

He testified at a 2014 House Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. national security space activities, the record of which has recently been published. Space protection, orbital debris, the industrial base and related topics were addressed.

Russia’s Altay Optical Laser Center was profiled by Mr. Thomson here.