In May, Russia announced it had launched three Russian communications satellites, Kosmos-2496, -2497, -2498. An additional object was along for the ride, orbiting a few kilometers away from the declared payloads. Without a declared name, this satellite was subsequently classified as debris by the U.S. space surveillance system.
This object piqued the curiosity of skilled amateur satellite watchers—especially since this was the second time in a year that a launch of a triplet of Russian communications satellites had an initially unnamed object along for the ride. (That extra satellite, launched in December 2013, was acknowledged as a satellite by the Russian Federation in a note to the United Nations in May 2014.) Over the next several months, the watchers tracked the movements of the object as it maneuvered under its own power, eventually making a close approach to the rocket stage that launched it in early November. The object was reclassified as Kosmos-2499 by the United States.
Anti-satellite weapon or not?
News reports have framed this event as a step by Russia to pursue anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry in earnest, again. The United States and the Soviet Union have been working on ASAT technology for decades and other countries have joined them in recent years. (A short history of ASAT weapons I wrote is here.) The Financial Times set it up as a dichotomy: “space junk or Russian satellite killer?” (although it’s certainly not space junk).
The Washington Post and NBCnews.com also picked up the idea that Russia may be resurrecting its “satellite killer.” On this particular suggestion: the image they included seems to refer to the old Russian co-orbital ASAT program, in which a weapon was launched into a similar orbit as its target and within a few trips around the Earth would get close to it and spit out shrapnel to damage its target. The recent experiment does not look operationally like that program at all, and it is unlikely Russia would use a decades-old program to try to make a point about its technological prowess—technology has moved on.
In fact, the question would more accurately have been: “satellite fixer or satellite killer?” As it turns out, as with much of space technology, the answer is “both” or “either.” The technology observed—the ability to get up close to another satellite—is dual-use: it could be used against an adversary’s satellite to inspect it, damage it, or destroy it. Or it could be used to inspect, repair or refuel a friendly satellite.
The ability to maneuver close to an uncooperative object (in this case, a rocket body cannot cooperate, as it is passive) is a technology that is being developed by a number of countries, including the United States, China, and Sweden, by both military and civil researchers. (This is a different task than the ability to dock cooperatively, like the Soyuz and Progress, and other vehicles do with the International Space Station.)
Some of these projects are for developing the ability to autonomously rendezvous with an object, meaning the satellite makes its close approach on its own, without assistance neither from the object it pursues nor from ground-based operators, which is more difficult yet. This technology has been identified by NASA as “critical to the ultimate success of capabilities such as in-orbit propellant storage and refueling, and complex operations in assembling mission components for challenging destinations.”
From the few details contained in the reports, I can’t tell if the inspector satellite autonomously maneuvered, nor could I tell whether it had any other capability besides maneuvering, such as a grappling arm or some other ASAT technology on board. I tend to doubt that it did; if it followed the pattern of development of the U.S. and other countries, it probably was just starting by getting the rendezvous technology working. And it’s not very big; Space-Track lists its radar cross section as “medium” which corresponds roughly to size 0.1-1.0 m2.
This of course is not happening in a vacuum. (Ok, it is happening in a literal vacuum, but not a technological or political one.) No law or treaty explicitly prohibits Russia (or anyone else) from testing an on-orbit ASAT weapon, nor unambiguously prohibits using one against someone else’s satellite. Prohibiting that kind of behavior is important for various reasons; good ideas for such rules exist and spacefaring nations have been halfheartedly working on them for quite some time. No one can decisively control space through technical means, as even the Pentagon realizes. True security on earth and useful development of space can only happen with cooperative measures.
Setting up rules for how close one satellite can approach another without permission cannot protect satellites from a dedicated adversary (it’s really very difficult to protect satellites), but it would go a long way toward safety and predictability and could help prevent misunderstandings. We really should be discussing how to limit destructive ASAT weapons in general.
Who’s paying attention?
While the United States space surveillance network almost certainly was making close observations of the Russian maneuvers, the U.S. did not issue a public demarche about Russia embarking on an ASAT program. The maneuvers of the Russian “object” were observed and reported by amateur satellite trackers, then framed and reported by the press.
I can think of a number of reasons to explain why the United States has declined to make a public fuss, among them the fact that the technology is dual-use and widely pursued; or the fact that the United States has its own robust program developing ASAT-relevant technologies; or that it didn’t seem like a useful thing to do, given that space operations is one area in which the U.S. and Russia/Soviet Union have found a way to work cooperatively for many decades.