The United States is arguably the nation with the most to lose in space.  Our way of life has become dependent on satellites for everything from our televisions to navigation in our cars, and our nation’s potential enemies are not only aware of it, they’re planning for it.

In March, a Russian military satellite called the Kosmos 2499 was launched.  The rocket’s upper stage that carried its payload into orbit released the satellite just like every other launch, but that’s where comparisons to traditional satellites stop.  The satellite then proceeded to conduct a series of eleven close approaches to the rocket as they both orbited the Earth.  These approaches went on for months, the most recent of which occurred in July, and on at least one occasion, it would seem the satellite actually nudged the rocket.

This type of orbital maneuverability could be indicative of a weapons system designed to disturb or destroy satellites in Earth’s orbit.  Aside from maneuvers specific to the rocket that launched the satellite, U.S. Air Force officials have also indicated that the satellite has approached unidentified space debris, seemingly in an effort to test its ability to locate, close with, and manipulate other items circling the globe high above our heads.

This satellite, informally referred to as “Object E” among the personnel at Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, is the second Russian military satellite to demonstrate this sort of orbital maneuvering capability.  Both satellites have been closely watched by the U.S. Air Force, as well as other interested governmental bodies.

Attempts by the U.S. Government to contact Moscow about these satellites have been met with no response, prompting some to believe that they were designed with offensive operations in mind.  While these satellites are extremely slow moving in order to safely approach other orbiting debris or equipment, most U.S. satellites have no evasive or defensive capabilities that could prevent Russia’s autonomous satellite hunter from engaging or even destroying them.

Although there have been no clear signs that these satellites were developed specifically to attack other satellites, they clearly have the potential ability to do so.  A technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability, pointed out earlier this year that the Kosmos 2499 platform bares an incredible resemblance to the Cold War era Russian Naryad, which was an anti-satellite weapon system shelved in the 1980s by the communist nation.

China’s Shiyan satellites raised similar questions in 2013, when three of them were launched together and proceeded to engage in orbital corrections, followed by more dramatic maneuvers and finally a rendezvous with a completely different type of Chinese satellite using a prototype manipulator arm.  China claimed that these satellites, as well as the others they’ve launched since, were designed for use capturing and studying orbiting debris, but China’s unwillingness to reveal research about the missions with the international community has raised eyebrows and concerns among U.S. officials.

“Since space systems are largely dual use, it should not be surprising that there would be interest in the ability to maneuver satellites in close proximity … but neither should there be blithe assumptions that this is necessarily for solely peaceful ends,” said Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.