Something fishy went on at a recent Russian rocket launch, according to reports.
At the crack of dawn last Friday, November 30, a Russian rocket blasted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia. According to an announcement by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, the Rockot-class space launch vehicle was set to deliver a cluster of three military satellites into orbit.
However, it appears that an additional unknown object might have deployed too.
Anatoly Zak – space journalist and publisher of RussianSpaceWeb – reports that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) registered five objects resulting from the launch. One of these extra objects is the rocket’s upper stage, but Zak speculates that the fifth object could be a maneuverable satellite.
While not necessarily suspicious in itself, talk of maneuverable satellites sounds a lot like the controversy and enduring mystery of Object 2014-28E four years ago.
Before we get into that, here are a few possible scenarios. It is possible that the upper stage broke apart into multiple pieces that were then tracked as an independent object. However, according to the Russian state news agency TASS, the Defense Ministry made no mention of reported hiccups with the take-off, declaring the launch a success. Kommersant, a liberal Russian newspaper, also reported that the extra object was actually a harmless dummy satellite that took the place of the Blits-M satellites that wasn't ready to launch.
Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, the paranoia and confusion about this object are not exactly unfounded considering Russia has previously been accused of launching sinister objects in space. There was a fair amount of media attention surrounding Object 2014-28E, or Kosmos 2499, a mysterious Russia satellite, capable of performing unusual powered maneuvers, that was launched along with three military communications satellites in May 2014.
Many speculated that the object was part of an anti-satellite program designed to disable rival satellites for strategic military purposes. Russia, however, kept quiet on the matter. Even to this day, no one is quite sure what Object 2014-28E was or what it was doing.
While the concern was considered legitimate, Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told Space.com: "Any satellite with the capability to maneuver has the potential to be a weapon. But does that mean necessarily that all maneuverable satellites are weapons? No."