Secret Russian Satellite Could Have Collided With Another Object

Orbital 'perturbation' give clues to possible space weapon

Secret Russian Satellite Could Have Collided With Another Object Secret Russian Satellite Could Have Collided With Another Object
Cosmos-2491, -2499 and -2504 are three very strange Russian satellites. They dance. They change orbits. They get close to their leftover booster rockets and... Secret Russian Satellite Could Have Collided With Another Object

Cosmos-2491, -2499 and -2504 are three very strange Russian satellites. They dance. They change orbits. They get close to their leftover booster rockets and then move away again. In April, one may have collided with another object. But if so, the impact was soft enough to not cause any damage.

But that’s still unusual, and there’s clearly some kind of experiment going on. The satellites could be part of a new space weapon. Or prototypes for one. Or maybe they’re really agile spies or repair drones.

These are all possibilities explored in a recent article for The Space Review by Brian Weeden. He knows a thing or two about military satellites, having formerly served as a U.S. Air Force officer working under the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center. Weeden is now an analyst with the Secure World Foundation.

And he knows there’s something really weird going on with -2491, -2499 and -2504. His article is perhaps the most comprehensive and technical public analysis of the objects yet published. They could be weapons or test-beds for weapons designed to attack other satellites — exploding them, colliding with them or ripping them apart with grabby arms. Perhaps they’re secretive reconnaissance satellites to monitor other secret satellites.

Weeden walks through the process the U.S. military used to monitor and classify the new satellites, initially known as “Object Es” before they are redesignated “Cosmos,” code for Russian military sats. Then there was the possible collision, which involved Cosmos-2504, the last of the three objects.

That launch occurred on March 31, when a Rockot booster blasted into orbit from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Mirny. Once in space, it expelled three Gonets communications satellites.

Then this happened:

As usual, the U.S. military tracked the launch and began to catalog new space objects within a few hours of launch. The pattern was the same as with the May 2014 launch: five catalog numbers were reserved (40552 through 40556) and labeled as Objects A through E. Objects A through C, believed to be the Gonets satellites, were all in orbits of roughly 1507 by 1500 kilometers (935 by 932 miles). Objects D and E, believed to be the Briz-KM upper stage and the fourth payload, were in orbits of 1507 by 1172 kilometers (935 by 728 miles). This indicated that the fourth payload had separated from the Briz-KM upper stage after it had performed its perigee-lowering disposal maneuver, which was a distinct difference from the deployment of Cosmos 2491 and Cosmos 2499 during their respective launches. Observers immediately suspected that satno 40555 (Object D) was the fourth payload, and assigned it the cover name of Cosmos 2504. Supporting this conclusion was the fact that it was detected broadcasting on the same frequencies as Cosmos 2491 and Cosmos 2499.

 

Cosmos 2504 began maneuvering shortly after launch. The first maneuver was detected on April 9, followed by a few more small maneuvers over the next week to bring it closer to the Briz-KM rocket body. Between April 15 and 16, Cosmos 2504 went from an estimated 4.4 kilometers above to 1.4 kilometers below the Briz-KM. At some point during that pass, the Briz-KM’s orbit was disturbed by an unknown perturbation, which could have been the result of a minor collision between the two space objects. If it was, the impact was very slight and did not result in additional debris being generated. It is also unknown if the impact was planned or was an accident.

There’s also a fourth nimble satellite in geostationary orbit, more than 22,000 miles above the earth’s surface, and Weeden rounds up theories that it could be a military communications or surveillance device. The other three sats are in low-earth orbit, or LEO.

But a larger theme, according to Weeden, is that the United States has gone unchallenged in space for so long, it didn’t prepare for the day when other countries started catching up. If these are weapons, that’s trouble, as the arms control treaties that govern the development and use of weapons on earth do not apply in space.

He worries about is an escalation of conflict in orbit — without the agreements and protocols to halt or reverse it.

The first major implication from this analysis is that [rendezvous and proximity operations] is an issue that is not going away, and will likely become an even more pressing issue over the next several years. Although only activities by the United States, Russia, and China have been discussed here, other spacefaring countries such as Canada, Japan, and Europe already possess many of the same capabilities. Furthermore, several of the advanced space capabilities under development by both governments and commercial industry, such as disaggregated constellations, on-orbit satellite servicing and repairs, active debris removal, and on-orbit inspection, all rely on RPO, meaning that the technology and capabilities will only become more widespread over time. …

 

Now that other countries are taking advantage of the same freedom of action, it is understandable that the United States suddenly deems the proliferation of these capabilities a massive U.S. national security concern. What’s harder to understand is the U.S. policy response. Instead of finally engaging seriously in discussions on how to strengthen space governance and mitigate the risks of the proliferation of counterspace capabilities, the emerging zeitgeist within the U.S. national security community is that norms and the rule of law are fantasies and miscalculations and incidents aren’t so bad. Instead, the sole focus seems to be on a significant military buildup, threats of use of force and a more aggressive posture.

A big part of the problem is that gathering information about what’s going on in space is really hard. Tracking satellites is difficult for the U.S. military’s own analysts, who rely on computers dating back decades.

There are enormous incentives to keep military satellites secret, and that’s true for the U.S. government as much as any other country. Space makes it easier. We don’t know if the Pentagon knows whether these creepy Russian satellites are weapons or not. Some of them do not even officially exist except for their United Nations registration filings. And some don’t even have that.

Then there’s the fact that the United States has launched secret satellites of its own that have engaged in similar orbital maneuvers. It doesn’t mean these are undisclosed American space weapons, but does the Kremlin know that? The secrecy begets paranoia … and more secrecy.

For everyone else, it’s up to civilian satellite watchers to hunt for clues that our planet’s orbit could be home to some dangerous, undisclosed objects.