On Friday, the U.S. Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) tracked a scheduled Russian rocket launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Western Russia. The rocket was slated to deliver a payload of three new communications satellites, and as it roared into the sky, everything appeared to be going exactly as anticipated… but once the rocket reached its orbital destination nearly two hours later, the U.S. military noticing something unusual.
With three satellites to deploy and a rocket upper stage tasked with carrying them there, the Combined Space Operations Center expected to begin tracking four orbital bodies at the peak of the rocket’s ascent. To their surprise, however, their instruments returned a reading of five objects instead. Either the rocket’s upper stage had broken apart into two large chunks… or the Russians had chosen to keep part of the launch’s manifest a secret.
It’s not at all uncommon for national governments to want to put satellites into orbit without drawing the attention of their international competitors. In April of this year, SpaceX was tasked with placing a classified U.S. government satellite into orbit that reportedly went wrong during deployment. The payload was so classified that neither SpaceX nor the federal government were willing to even acknowledge which agency the platform was launched for, and despite reports of the launch’s failure, it was difficult to get a straight answer out of the government, SpaceX, or Northrop Grumman (who reportedly built the payload and its adapter). Ultimately, the $1 billion loss was pinned on Northrop Grumman, though many contend that the satellite is actually operational, and the U.S. government was simply attempting to misdirect the watchful eyes of the world below.
What makes Russia’s secretive deployments a reason for concern is not the idea that they may have new intelligence or reconnaissance capabilities — launches of that sort are common place and expected. Russia has been accused on multiple occasions of launching weaponized, maneuverable satellites into orbit, commonly called “inspector satellites.” These satellites don’t need to be armed with conventional weapons to be a serious threat to the orbital operations of other nations: all you need to be a weapon in orbit is a controllable arm and a thruster or two. Hindering the function of a satellite could be done as simply as adjusting its position in orbit. A satellite could be destroyed by nudging it into reentry, where the earth’s own atmosphere would destroy it.
In September, French Defense Minister Florence Parly accused Russia of sending a specialized orbital platform to eavesdrop on data being transmitted to and from a joint French and Italian military communications satellite.
“Trying to listen to one’s neighbor is not only unfriendly. It’s called an act of espionage,” Parly said to the press. “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.”
It is believed that Russia already has a number of “Inspector” satellites in orbit — many of which were launched under similar circumstances to Friday’s launch. In May of 2014, for instance, a similar launch scheduled to deliver three communications satellites into orbit also resulted in U.S. military forces tracking five new orbital bodies. The fifth would eventually be revealed to be Kosmos-2499 — an “Inspector” satellite believed to have some sort of offensive capabilities. If Friday’s launch proves to be more of the same, it will mean Russia now has at least five of these weaponized orbiters in place above our heads.