The test involved “nesting doll” or “Matryoshka” satellites stalking an American spy satellite. The Russian satellite Kosmos 2542 was launched in November 2019; in December it released a sub-satellite, Kosmos-2543 which then carried out a series of maneuvers. Kosmos-2543 is described as an inspector that can examine other satellites and check for damage.
This inspector was moving into a position close to an American satellite in low-Earth orbit, identified as USA 245. Officially this is only described as a national defense asset, but satellite watchers have identified it as a KH-11 spy satellite. Also known as Crystal, these bus-sized satellites resemble the Hubble Space Telescope turned around to focus on the Earth, providing high-quality digital imaging in almost real-time. Their powers of observation are legendary, with an optical resolution of about 10 centimeters, which may be enhanced by digital processing.
USA 245 changed course to stay clear of the Kosmos 2543 trailing it. On July 15, an unidentified object separated from Kosmos 2543, showing another level of nesting. This new object, designated 45915 by the U.S. is believed to be an anti-satellite weapon, although there was no explosion, target hit or other effect.
The head of the U.K.'s space directorate, Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, described the new object 45915 as having "characteristics of a weapon." United States Space Command says that firing what appears to be a projectile is inconsistent with the stated inspector mission.
Object 45915 was likely identified as a weapon because of its “fairly high relative velocity” noted by observers, though the military may have undisclosed intelligence. Moving at an estimated relative speed of 200 meters per second /450 miles per hour, the object would smash through the flimsy structure of another satellite. It might also explode before impact like other anti-satellite weapons, scattering shrapnel over a wide area to guarantee a multiple hits on a big target.
Russia has not so far confirmed allegations of a weapons test.
“During testing of the latest space technology, one of the domestic satellites was examined close up using the specialized equipment of small space craft," according to a statement released via Interfax news agency.
Russia, China, India, and the U.S. have all previously tested anti-satellite weapons. In 1984 an F-15 Eagle soared up to 80,000 feet at an angle of 60 degrees to test-launch an outsize Vought ASM-135 ASAT missile. In 2008 the U.S. Navy carried out an anti-satellite mission for real, shooting down satellite USA 193 with a RIM-161 Standard missile. The official reason was that the satellite threatened to crash to Earth with a ton of toxic hydrazine fuel on board, though others have suggested that the real aim was to test the missile’s anti-satellite capability.
The difference however is that all the previous anti-satellite tests were with weapons fired from the surface. Putting an actual weapon in space is another matter. The Outer Space Treaty, signed by more than a hundred countries including Russia and the U.S., encourages peaceful co-operation in space and forbids placing nuclear weapons or any other WMD in orbit. It forbids the testing of any kind of weapon on the moon or other celestial bodies. However, it does not prevent the use of conventional weapons in orbit.
General Jay Raymond, head of U.S. Space Command, believes the test is part of Russia’s larger scheme: “This is further evidence of Russia's continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems and [is] consistent with the Kremlin's published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk."
Such tests could lead to an arms race in space in which every military satellite will be shadowed by one or more orbiting anti-satellite weapons, ready to destroy it in the event of a conflict. This may in turn lead to anti-anti-satellite weapons.
As discussed in an earlier Forbes piece, we are now faced with the choice of whether to try to maintain space as a version of Antarctica, kept free from military activity by treaties, or whether the prepare now for space wars and start building the weapons to fight them.
The newly founded United States Space Command clearly has a position on this. Their press release on the Kosmos 2543 test is titled “Russia conducts space-based anti-satellite weapons test,” notably more conclusive and accusatory than talk of objects with "characteristics of a weapon.” Given their role, and dependence on a threat for funding, it is natural that the new service would see the situation in these terms.
The test may, however, revitalize efforts to curb space weapons by international treaty. At present, efforts in this direction are sluggish. With the threat of new weapons, things may change. The U.S. has by far the world’s greatest satellite capability for military communications, sensing and navigation – which means it also has the greatest reliance on such satellites and most to lose if anti-satellite weapons are developed and deployed. Russia also has plenty to lose. Both sides may now press ahead with renewed vigor, but a proposed treaty to prevent an arms race in space currently under discussion might appeal to some on both sides.
By David Hambling
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