November 19, 2014
Did Russia Secretly Launch A Satellite-Killer Into Orbit?
Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
A mysterious object launched by Russia last Christmas is being tracked by western space agencies and other officials, and there are concerns that the probe could be part of a program to capture or destroy other satellites.According to Sam Jones, Defense and Security Editor for Financial Times, amateur astronomers and satellite-trackers all across the globe have been following the unusual maneuvers of the object, which has officially been designated Object 2014-28E. It is also being tracked by the US military under NORAD designation 39765.
Experts had originally dismissed the object as space debris that was carried into orbit as part of a Russian launch back in May. However, BBC News online science editor Paul Rincon reported that Roscosmos officials told the UN that the May launch contained four satellites, not the customary three, leading to concerns that Object 2014-28E may be a revived Cold War-era project.
The object, which Rincon said is known as the Kosmos 2499 satellite, could be part of a Russian program to test a probe capable of chasing down orbiting spacecraft, possibly to repair or disable them. Witnesses have seen Kosmos 2499 perform a series of unusual maneuvers in space that changed its orbit – maneuvers which culminated on November 9 with a close approach to part of the rocket used to originally place it in orbit, he added.
Jones noted that the purpose of this object is “unknown” and “could be civilian: a project to hoover up space junk, for example. Or a vehicle to repair or refuel existing satellites. But interest has been piqued because Russia did not declare its launch – and by the object’s peculiar, and very active, precision movements across the skies.”
The country had previously been working on an anti-satellite weaponry program known as “Istrebitel Sputnikov” or “satellite killer,” he added, and while work on the project was officially “mothballed... after the fall of the iron curtain,” Russian military officials had threatened in the past that they would resume work on the project should relations with the US over anti-missile defense treaties stall.
“Whatever it is, [Object 2014-28E] looks experimental,” Patricia Lewis, research director at think-tank Chatham House and an expert in space security, told The Financial Times. “It could have a number of functions, some civilian and some military. One possibility is for some kind of grabber bar. Another would be kinetic pellets which shoot out at another satellite. Or possibly there could be a satellite-to-satellite cyber attack or jamming.”
Business Insider reporter Pierre Bienaimé said that both the US and Soviet Union had experimented with satellite-killing technology in the 1980s, but had let such projects lapse following the Cold War. In 2007, China used an anti-satellite device mounted on a ballistic missile to destroy one of its own aging weather probes, and the US destroyed an already de-commissioned spy satellite by ramming a non-explosive missile into it the following year.
“The difference here, of course, is that Russia's experiment could involve an asset with more longevity, rather than a missile used just once,” Bienaimé explained. “If it is indeed a weapon, it could lend new urgency to the previously tentative race to weaponize not just air, land, and sea, but space as well.”
However, as Newsweek’s Polly Mosendz noted, the New Start Treaty signed by Russia and the US in 2010 limited “strategic offensive arms,” which likely means it prohibits a Russian satellite from purposefully disarming an American one. Furthermore, she said that the probe would be governed by the Outer Space Treaty, bars countries from placing weapons of mass description in orbit or installing such weapons on celestial bodies.
“Though experts and trackers are speculating that 2014-28E is involved in an act outlawed by the Outer Space Treaty, there is no evidence to concretely support their claim,” she added. “It may be a piece of space junk after all.”