In a speech on September 7, 2018, French Defence Minister Florence Parly accused the Russian Luch (Olymp) satellite of closely approaching the French-Italian Athena-Fidus satellite in the geostationary belt.1 The Defence Minister noted that the closeness of the approach could potentially allow Luch to intercept Athena-Fidus’ communications, which she condemned as an “act of espionage.” Earlier in 2018, French Air Force Gen. Jean-Pascal Breton acknowledged that “several” French satellites had been approached on orbit before by inspector satellites from other “sovereign nations,” but did not specifically name the satellites involved.2
Trying to listen to one’s neighbor is not only unfriendly. It’s called an act of espionage.Florence Parly, French Minister of Defense
Although the Defence Minister’s speech did not include specific dates of the close approach—instead she noted that the incident happened “last year”—publicly-available space object data from the U.S. Air Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron suggest the two satellites were nearest to one another from October 24, 2017, to January 11, 2018.3 During this time period, Athena-Fidus was located at 37.8°E. After approaching Athena-Fidus from the west, Luch (Olymp) settled at 38.1°E. The two objects’ closest distance was approximately 12.5 km on November 26, 2017. Further orbital data analysis, however, shows that Athena-Fidus was not actually Luch’s nearest neighbor during this time period.4 Instead, a Pakistani satellite, Paksat 1R, was positioned between the two at 38.0°E for the entirety of the 11-week close approach; their closest approach was approximately 1.7 km on November 27, 2017, a day after the Russian satellite’s closest approach with Athena-Fidus.5
After the close approach period, Luch continued eastward in the geostationary belt.
In addition to this encounter with Athena-Fidus and Paksat 1R, Luch has performed close approaches with satellites from Intelsat, Eutelsat, SES, Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the European Space Agency.6 Learn more about Luch’s historical behavior here.
- Unusual Behavior in GEO: Luch (Olymp-K) Center for Strategic and International Studies
- ‘Espionage:' French defense head charges Russia of dangerous games in space DefenseNews
- The Stellar Dance: US, Russia Satellites Make Potentially Risky Close Approaches Breaking Defense
- Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment Secure World Foundation
- Space Threat Assessment 2020 Center for Strategic and International Studies