The Kremlin says its nimble new satellites are just for communications. But they look—and act—an awful lot like prototype weapons.
On Christmas Day in 2013, a rocket blasted off from the Russian Federal Space Agency’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome, about 500 miles north of Moscow. The 95-foot-tall, 118-ton Rokot booster—an unarmed version of a Cold War nuclear-tipped missile—lanced into low orbit, shedding spent stages as it climbed.
Seventy-five miles above the Earth’s surface, the Rokot’s nose cracked open and its payload spilled out. The rocket carried Rodnik communications satellites, according to Russian officials.
It’s customary for Rodnik sats to deploy in threes, but in a notification to the United Nations, Moscow listed four spacecraft inside the Christmas Rokot.
The discrepancy was strange…and got stranger.
Rodnik sats, like most orbital spacecraft, don’t have engines and can’t move under their own power. So it came as a shock to some observers on the ground—a group including amateur satellite-spotters with radios and telescopes; radar-equipped civilian researchers; and military officials monitoring banks of high-tech sensors—when the Rokot’s fourth satellite, designated Kosmos-2491, moved, propelling itself into a slightly different orbit.
Whatever Kosmos-2491 was, it wasn’t some innocuous communications satellite. And over the next year and a half, Russia launched two more of the mysterious, maneuvering spacecraft, each time sneaking it into orbit as part of a routine commsat launch.
No one outside the Russian government, and perhaps the Pentagon, knows for sure what Kosmos-2491, -2499, and -2504 are for. But it’s clear enough what the three mystery sats could do, in theory. Zipping across orbital planes hundreds of thousands of feet above Earth, the nimble little spacecraft—which are apparently the size of a mini-refrigerator—are able to get really close to other satellites. Close as in a few dozen feet away.
And if they can get that close, the little robots could spy on, hijack, and even destroy other sats.
In other words, Kosmos-2491 and its triplets might be space weapons, the likes of which few other nations possess. And if so, they could upset the orbital balance of power, at a time when government agencies, armies, scientists, and everyday people—in the United States, especially—depend on satellites for communications, surveillance, science, and navigation.
“Our nation’s advantage in space is no longer a given,” U.S. Air Force General William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, told Congress in March 2014. “The ever-evolving space environment is increasingly contested as potential adversary capabilities grow in both number and sophistication.”
Kosmos-2499 joined Kosmos-2491 in low orbit on May 23, 2014, piggybacking on another cluster of three commsats. Kosmos-2504 made its debut on March 31 this year—again, boosting into space alongside a trio of communications satellites.
The three mystery sats have stayed busy, firing their tiny engines to climb and dive hundreds of miles at a time, altering their velocity by hundreds of feet per second while playing chase with abandoned rocket stages and other hunks of space junk, apparently practicing for close passes on active satellites.
Full article: Moscow Could Be Prepping for Space War With Aggressive New Satellites (The Daily Beast)