The United States claims that the country has been testing a space weapon designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. Although Russia denies it and claims that it is an inspection satellite, it would not be the first time that its space behaviour raises suspicions.
Things are tense in space when it comes to international politics. Although the historic space race between the US and the USSR a few decades ago has given way to a more collaborative environment, it seems that not all are good intentions in the sector. Late last month, the US Space Command announced that it had detected evidence that Russia had conducted an anti-satellite weapon’s test, although it did not destroy or damage any objects. SpaceCom claims that on July 15, the Russian satellite Kosmos 2543 deployed a new object in its own orbit, similar to a previous anti-satellite demonstration conducted in 2017.
What does that mean?
According to the SpaceCom report, and information provided, the United States saw the Russian satellite Kosmos 2543 operating “abnormally close” to a US Government satellite in low Earth orbit. At some point, Kosmos 2543 quickly drifted away and met up with another Russian satellite. Later, Kosmos 2543 launched a small object within its own orbit that came very close to the Russian target satellite. This test, according to SpaceCom, is “inconsistent” with Kosmos 2543’s stated purpose of acting as an “inspection satellite”, and that, in reality, the manoeuvre was a demonstration of anti-satellite weaponry.
What is an inspector satellite?
For the past few years, Russia has said it has been running a program to test inspection technologies that can monitor its own orbiting satellites, supposedly to make sure they are working properly.
There is nothing illegal about survey satellites. But the United States does not believe they are what Russia says they are. Russia has a long history of placing its satellites very close to other objects in a way that suggests a demonstration of possible weapons or an intention to spy on the assets of other countries. In February, satellite experts noticed that another Russian satellite (Kosmos 2542) was apparently spying on an American satellite (USA 245). And in 2017, another Russian satellite launched a high-speed projectile near another Russian satellite. At the time, the United States said it was a weapons demonstration.
The new report “raises the idea of the importance of agreeing on rules of behaviour so that everyone has the same terms of what is considered a responsible activity in space and what is seen as threatening,” says space security expert Victoria Samson of Secure World Foundation. Conflicts in space are a very new scenario for the world, and there are still very few rules and agreements to define what constitutes threatening action.
SpaceCom’s report does not contain much detail. We still don’t know if Kosmos 2543 represents an immediate threat to satellites and any space assets controlled by other countries; nor do we know how the United States plans to respond. The SpaceCom spokesman did not respond to these questions to Revyuh.