Spy satellite SpaceX launched might buzz the space station

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Known as USA 276, it looks to be headed for the International Space Station, says one amateur spy satellite tracker. Then again, it could change course.

The secret spy satellite that SpaceX launched May 1 is currently on a curious trajectory, according to the calculations of an amateur spy satellite tracker. It appears it might pass near the International Space Station right around the time a SpaceX Dragon capsule will be preparing to dock with the ISS this weekend.

Amateur spy satellite tracker Marco Langbroek shared the above predictive model showing the satellite, which launched as NROL-76 and is now known as USA 276, could pass within as little as 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of the ISS. In fact, based on its current path, the satellite could make several close approaches to the space station on Saturday and Sunday, according to a chart that Langbroek shared in a blog post Tuesday.

Langbroek is a member of an experienced community of amateur satellite spotters who have been tracking the spy satellite since it was first identified in orbit last week. Last year, he managed to capture a video of the space station’s lost thermal shield zipping through space after it got away from astronauts during a spacewalk.

USA 276 could alter its path at any moment and wind up never coming anywhere near the ISS. In fact, Langbroek makes it clear to readers of his post that he’s the first to admit it’s all “very speculative.” He also notes that “the calculated distances in the table have quite some uncertainty, perhaps by a factor of 2 or more.”

But if the National Reconnaissance Office, which contracted with SpaceX to launch USA 276, is looking to buzz the space station, what gives? Some speculate it could be about testing new technologies for inspecting other satellites or monitoring docking events in space, like the Dragon resupply mission set for Sunday.

That would be a little weird, though, to test a spy technology on a space station that is a symbol of international cooperation and transparency between not only NASA, but the space agencies from Russia, Japan, Europe and others.

“I still don’t know what to think of this all,” writes Langbroek. “Are these figments of my imagination or is there really something going on here? I am at a loss.”