Mysterious Satellite Sparks Concerns That Russia Has Developed A Space Weapon

Kimika Ying, via Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A mysterious Russian object that was launched earlier this year has been performing some rather fishy maneuvers, prompting some to start panicking that the satellite could be some kind of secret space weapon.

The curious satellite, coined Object 2014-28E, was put into orbit in May of this year as part of a launch that saw three communications satellites added to an existing military group. It was originally classed as space debris, but Russia didn’t declare its launch. This, married with its peculiar orbital movements, has aroused suspicion in many. So much so that for the past few weeks, amateur astronomers and satellite trackers in both the US and Russia have been closely stalking its activity.

The object has been observed making highly precise maneuvers across the skies, such as gliding towards other Russian satellites and rendezvousing with the remnants of the stage that launched it. These complex movements prompted the US to re-classify the object as a satellite, but no one knows what it is really doing.

Some have speculated that it could be cleaning up the skies, collecting space junk that has accumulated over the years as satellites have been destroyed. Another possibility is that it could be a repair or refueling vehicle for existing satellites. But some are worried that it could have a more sinister purpose because of Russia’s history with anti-satellite weaponry.

During the Cold War, Russia initiated its “Istrebitel Sputnikov” (“satellite killer”) project which was designed to bring down or fatally damage other satellites, but Russia scrapped the program in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed. However, Russian military officials have reportedly said that they would revive the project if relations with the US deteriorated. Some are therefore worried that the sanctions the West is currently imposing on Russia due to its involvement in the Ukraine crisis earlier this year have prompted Russia to start researching space weaponry once more.

The ability to take down another nation’s satellite is widely regarded as a key national-security capability, but Russia is not the only country that is known to have worked on developing satellite-destroying technology. Back in 2007, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites, and the US blew up one of its obsolete crafts the following year.

While many agree that the concerns are justified, Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs, has warned that we shouldn’t be immediately jumping to the worst conclusions as it’s possible that the satellite could have more than one purpose.

“Any satellite with the capability to maneuver has the potential to be a weapon,” Johnson-Freese told Space.com. “But does that mean necessarily that all maneuverable satellites are weapons? No.”

[Via Space.com, Financial Times, The Independent and City A.M.]

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