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Space war: Russia deploys a satellite that could destroy other satellites


Extreme Tech

According to Earth’s dedicated team of satellite observers — astronomers that spend their nights watching orbiting satellites through telescopes and reporting on their movements — Russia is developing a satellite that can chase down other satellites. Obviously, such an ability could be used for the forces of good, such as repairing or refueling other spacecraft — but the rest of the world is worried that Russia might be looking to disable other satellites, or to get close enough that it can take photos of classified designs or eavesdrop on communications.

Back in December 2013, Russia launched a trio of Rodnik military communications satellites, and a fourth unknown object, on board a Rokot/Briz-KM rocket. At the time, Russia didn’t acknowledge the presence of the fourth object — known only as Kosmos 2499 — but for obvious reasons launches are very closely watched by foreign governments and civilian satellite observers. The US military originally thought it was just a piece of debris, but one independent observer — Robert Christy — had seen this “debris” fire its engines to carry out some maneuvers. Eventually, in May 2014 Russia told the United Nations that there had actually been four satellites on board the rocket — though it still declined to say what that fourth satellite was actually doing.

According to Christy, Kosmos 2499 has spent the last year maneuvering closer and closer to the Briz-KM upper rocket stage, which has been hanging out in low Earth orbit since it delivered the four satellites. With a series of very controlled engine burns — both spacecraft have an orbital velocity of around 17,000 mph — Kosmos 2499 is now just a few meters from the upper stage. In short, it appears to be an inspector satellite — a satellite designed for the sole purpose of sneaking up on other satellites.

Kosmos 2499 is most likely a proof of concept for a future Russian satellite that actually does something — such as taking photos of military satellites that belong to other countries, refueling its own satellites… or something far more nefarious, such as blowing other satellites out of the sky. The problem with doing anything malicious, of course, is that everyone with a telescope can see exactly what’s going on — so it’s unlikely that Russia would actually do anything untoward. Just like missile launches, nuclear tests, and large military exercises in the Persian Gulf, inspector satellites are all about showing the world that you can do something, not that you’ll actually do it. (Not to mention, there international treaties in place that are meant to prevent the weaponization of space.)

It’s also worth pointing out that the US has had


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