Maneuvering Russian Satellite Has Everyone’s Attention

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WASHINGTON – A Russian military satellite launched in March has made at least 11 close approaches to the rocket upper stage that released it into orbit, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force.

Such maneuvering capability is consistent with, but not necessarily indicative of, an on-orbit anti-satellite weapon.

Air Force officials previously said they were closely watching the satellite, and independent space tracking experts and policy analysts have joined the vigil. The maneuvers started in April, and the most recent occurred in early July, experts said, adding that in at least one case the satellite appears to have nudged the upper stage to a higher orbit.

In a response to questions from SpaceNews, Air Force Capt. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command (JFCC) for Space, said that in addition to its dance with the upper stage, the satellite, known as Kosmos 2504, on one occasion approached an unidentified piece of orbital debris. It has not approached any active satellites, he said.

Kosmos 2504, which launched along with three communications satellites aboard a Rockot vehicle from Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, is being watched carefully by Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of the 14th Air Force and of the JFCC for Space, said in April that the service was “keeping a close eye on” the satellite, whose maneuvers are similar to another Russian satellite launched last year, also along with three communications satellites on a Rockot vehicle. That satellite is known as Kosmos 2499 but is often informally referred to as Object E.

…T.S. Kelso, senior research astrodynamicist for AGI’s Center for Space Standards and Innovation, said via email July 13 that Kosmos 2504, the one launched in March, has “maneuvered extensively.”

In interviews with SpaceNews, experts noted that the satellite is maneuvering at extremely low speeds, which is necessary to safely make close approaches — often referred to in military parlance as proximity operations — with other objects.

After one such encounter, the Rockot launcher’s Breeze KM upper stage appeared to have moved to a slightly higher orbit, the observers said. It is unclear if the satellite intentionally or unintentionally nosed the rocket body to the higher orbit, or whether the approach was part of some kind of docking experiment, they said.

The Air Force and U.S. State Department referred questions about the satellite to the Russian Foreign Ministry. E-mails sent to the Russian embassy here were not returned.

Senior officials in the Defense Department have said repeatedly that Russian leaders claim to have an anti-satellite weapon.

At the very least, said John Sheldon, director of the George Marshall Institute, a think tank here, the maneuvers demonstrate that these “capabilities are in the hands of countries that could give us trouble in the future.”

Full article: Maneuvering Russian Satellite Has Everyone’s Attention (SpaceNews)

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