The orbital maneuvers of a mysterious object Russia launched earlier this year have raised concerns that the satellite may be a space weapon of some sort.
The speculation centers on "Object 2014-28E," which Russia lofted along with three military communications satellites in May. The object was originally thought to be space junk, but satellite trackers have watched it perform a number of interesting maneuvers over the past few weeks, the Financial Times reported Monday (Nov. 17).
Last weekend, for example, 2014-28E apparently met up with the remnants of a rocket stage that helped the object reach orbit. [The Most Destructive Space Weapons Concepts]
As a result, some space analysts wonder if Object 2014-28E could be part of an anti-satellite program — perhaps a revived version of the Cold War-era "Istrebitel Sputnikov" ("satellite killer") project, which Russian officials have said was retired when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.
Military officials have long regarded the ability to destroy or disable another country's satellites as a key national-security capability. The Soviet Union is not the only nation known to have worked on developing such technology; China destroyed one of its own weather satellites in a 2007 test that spawned a huge cloud of orbital debris, and the United States blew up one of its own defunct spacecraft in 2008.
The concern about Object 2014-28E is legitimate, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. But she cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying that Russia could have a number of purposes in mind for the technology that 2014-28E may be testing out.
"Any satellite with the capability to maneuver has the potential to be a weapon," Johnson-Freese told Space.com. "But does that mean necessarily that all maneuverable satellites are weapons? No."
The United States has also worked to develop maneuverable-satellite technology, she noted, citing the Air Force's Experimental Satellite System-11 (XSS-11) and NASA's DART (Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology) spacecraft, both of which launched in 2005. Further, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) managed a mission called Orbital Express, which launched in 2007 to test out satellite-servicing tech.
"When we did DART and XSS-11, other countries went into panic mode — you know, 'The U.S. has space weapons,'" Johnson-Freese said. "The first thing we did was assuage those concerns and say, 'No, no. That's not what it is. It's just a maneuverable satellite.' But any time you have dual-use technology, there are going to be concerns."
And pretty much all space technology is dual-use, said Brian Weeden, a technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation (a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability) and a former orbital analyst with the Air Force. For example, spacecraft capable of orbital rendezvous operations could help a nation inspect, service and refuel its satellites, or deorbit defunct craft to help mitigate the growing space-junk problem.
Weeden thinks it's unlikely that Object 2014-28E is up to anything nefarious.
"The activities are much more in line with an inspection mission than with any sort of destruction mission," he told Space.com.
The secrecy surrounding the spacecraft helps fuel speculation about its mission, as does the fact that U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated in the wake of Russia's military intervention in Ukraine this year, Weeden said.
"I think if this had happened in a different context, the speculation would be different," Weeden said. "But because it's occurring in the context of heightened tensions, there's more of a proclivity to assume the worst."
Russia likely regards Object 2014-28E's mission as a national-security activity in space, he added. The secrecy is thus unsurprising, as Russia tends to keep a tight lid on such missions as a matter of policy.
And Russian officials may be happy to keep quiet and let the mystery and speculation continue to build, Johnson-Freese said.
"I think that anything the Russians can do to provoke the United States right now, their government is supportive of," she said. "If this can cause concern in the United States, they're all for it."
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.