Russia’s ‘Killer Satellites’ Re-Awaken



The trio of mysterious spacecraft were idle for at least a year. Now they’re zooming toward foreign satellites again—and no one really knows why.

A trio of mysterious Russian government satellites startled space experts when, shortly after blasting into low orbit between 2013 and 2015, they began dramatically changing their orbits, demonstrating a rare degree of maneuverability for small spacecraft.

Now after being idle for a year or more, two of the mystery-sats are on the move again. On April 20, 2017, one of them reportedly shaved hundreds of meters off its orbit in order to zoom within 1,200 meters of a big chunk of a defunct Chinese weather satellite that China smashed in a controversial 2007 test of an anti-satellite rocket.

By orbital standards, that’s pretty close.

The Russian spacecrafts’ impressive maneuvers have got observers scratching their heads. No one outside of the Russian government — and probably the U.S. military — seems to know for sure what the satellites are for.

Experts say the Russian satellites could be technology-demonstrators. They might also be precursors to orbital weapons.

Either way, the nimble spacecraft are “intriguing,” Dr. Laura Grego, a space expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast.

Those who know for sure … aren’t talking. The Russian space agency didn’t respond to an email seeking comment — and has barely mentioned the mystery craft at all since late 2014. The U.S. Air Force, which tracks all the world’s satellites, issued the same boilerplate statement it released the first time the Russian satellites started moving around.

The original trio of satellites — known by their Russian code names Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504 — seemed to be maneuvering toward specific targets in space when they first began their orbital dances.

That implied that the Kosmos triplets could be inspection satellites capable of closely matching the orbit of another spacecraft and scanning it, or even physically interacting with it in order to repair, modify or dismantle it. The Pentagon calls these “rendezvous and proximity operations.”

The possible war-time applications of inspection satellites are obvious. “You can probably equip them with lasers, maybe put some explosives on them,” Zak said of the Kosmos triplets in 2015. “If [one] comes very close to some military satellite, it probably can do some harm.”

Moscow took pains to obscure at least one of the Kosmos mystery-sats. The Russian space agency launched Kosmos-2491 aboard a single rocket that also carried three, non-maneuvering communications satellites.

The Russians announced the comms-sats in advance. They didn’t mention Kosmos-2491 … until after foreign and independent spacewatchers saw Kosmos-2491, which they had initially mistaken for debris, move under its own power.

In a brief statement in December 2014, Russian space agency chief Oleg Ostapenko insisted that the maneuverable spacecraft were peaceful in purpose and not, as some feared, “killer satellites.”

Kosmos-2491 has apparently been inactive since late 2014. Kosmos-2499 executed dramatic maneuvers in the spring of 2016 then fell idle until March 2017. Kosmos-2504 orbited like dead weight for nearly two years since performing a close pass on a spent rocket stage in October 2015. Around the same time Kosmos-2499 came back to life, Kosmos-2504 began moving closer to that chunk of old Chinese weather satellite.

The periods of idleness are not insignificant, Grego said, while stressing that she had not verified the details of the Russian satellites’ recent movements. “I do find very interesting that the satellite would go dormant for two years and then come back to life to maneuver. That could help the satellite be stealthy.”

One strategy to keep maneuvering satellites stealthy is to pretend they are debris — i.e., not to have them maneuver at all at first, and then come to life later. To be confident this works, you might want to be able to test if your equipment works after being idle for months or years.”

Full article: Russia’s ‘Killer Satellites’ Re-Awaken (The Daily Beast)

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