Russian scientists, with the support of the Russian government, intend to place a number of ground-based observatories in the Nenets Autonomous Region on Russia’s Northwest Arctic Ocean coast for the purposes of providing space situational awareness (SSA) of satellites and space debris in Polar orbits as the pass over the Arctic region, according to a report published on 7 November 2018 by the Russian news agency, TASS.
Professor Alexander Rodin, Head of the Applied Infrared Spectroscopy Laboratory at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, told TASS at a conference on Russia’s Arctic policy that, So far, we don’t have [such] ground-based observation posts for [monitoring] the situation in near-polar and helio-synchronous orbits. We are planning to set up such an experimental network by 2020.”
“The monitoring of space vehicles is a very important task today and all the space powers are concerned over this because outer space has ceased to be empty. The problem of space debris and dangerous collisions is very pressing today, especially for polar areas that are the places for the convergence of actually all the orbits of space vehicles staying in helio-synchronous orbits,” Rodin said.
The Arctic region is “an extremely important testing ground for placing near-Earth space observation instruments,” the professor added.
“Most of the space vehicles that stay in helio-synchronous orbits can be observed actually only from high latitudes. In this regard, the Arctic is becoming an extremely important testing ground for placing near-Earth space observation instruments. This program is being implemented within the framework of the space activity of Roscosmos [Russia’s State Space Corporation] while the existing observation posts in the Russian Federation are basically located along the country’s southern border,” Rodin said.
“We will start the first experiments already in the coming weeks here, on the territory of the Nenets Autonomous Region, in Amderma, with the administration’s support. We are planning to place an experimental telescope prototype there already in late November and carry out the experiment by mid-December. We are acting in close interaction with the regional administration and hope that its leadership will be able to take part in the experiment,” Rodin concluded.
Russia has an extensive SSA network primarily comprising of ground-based telescopes and radars, but this has suffered from chronic underfunding since the demise of the Soviet Union, and even then is nowhere near as extensive in terms of sophistication and geographical scope as the SSA network of the United States.
This said, however, Russia has a geopolitical interest in the Arctic region as climate change has resulted in the continuing retreat of the Arctic ice cap and has opened up a navigable route for commercial shipping along Russia’s northern coastline for many months out of the year called the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Further, climate change in the Arctic means that vast reserves of oil and gas – much of which lies within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) will become more accessible for extraction in the coming years if the current rate of ice melt continues.
Russia has laid claim to much of the Arctic region within its EEZ and beyond, and according to many analysts, has increased its military presence in the region in order to back up these claims, to include communications and Earth observation satellites.
While SSA capabilities are indeed needed to observe satellite and space debris characteristics as they pass over the North Pole, Russian SSA capabilities in the region can also provide the Russian military with data of other countries’ space capabilities as they also pass over. A number of countries with Arctic interests, such as Canada, Norway, and the United States, have questioned a number of Russian territorial and resource claims in the Arctic region.