Did Russia just launch a secret space weapon into orbit?

  • U.S. intelligence recorded a Russian rocket deploying a mysterious object during a recent mission.
  • It’s possibly an inspector satellite, a spacecraft designed to repair, monitor and, potentially, destroy other satellites.
  • Weaponized satellites would likely be used in the early stages of a large-scale conflict, U.S. intelligence reports.

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On November 30, a rocket launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Western Russia and delivered three Rodnik communications satellites into orbit. The U.S. military’s Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) knew about the launch in advance and was keeping a close eye on the mission, expecting to see four new orbital objects: three satellites and the upper stage of the vehicle.

Strangely, the CSpOC saw five objects leave the rocket. It’s possible the mystery object resulted from the upper stage breaking into two pieces, both of which were large enough for the military to track. But it’s also possible the object is a so-called inspector satellite.

Inspector satellites are sophisticated spacecraft capable of maneuvering close to other space objects for, as the name suggests, inspecting. These satellites could also potentially be used to refuel spacecraft, track space missions and repair other satellites. However, they could also be weaponized to spy on other countries, disrupt communications systems from space, or even destroy other satellites.

Russia has already launched several of these satellites, prompting concerns from other countries. In September, French Defense Minister Florence Parly accused Russia of sending its Louch-Olym orbiter to spy on the French-Italian military satellite Athena-Fidus.

“Trying to listen to one’s neighbor is not only unfriendly. It’s called an act of espionage,” Parly said. “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.”

In August, U.S. officials expressed concern after a satellite launched by Russia in October 2017 was exhibiting “very abnormal behavior.”

“…Its behavior on orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational-awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection-satellite activities,”‘ U.S. Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Yleem D.S. Poblete, told the United Nations.

Russia has called such accusations slanderous, insisting its satellites aren’t designed for offensive purposes. Alarmingly, however, that’s nearly impossible to verify with current technology.

“We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it,” Poblete said.

Inspector satellites in wartime

The U.S., China and Russia are all reportedly pursuing anti-satellite weaponry, and U.S. intelligence estimates that the superpowers will have “initial operational capability in the next few years.” These weapons would likely be used in the early stages of a future conflict to disrupt the enemy’s ability to coordinate and execute attacks, as the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community warned in February.

“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems.”

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