„Russia may be testing a satellite capable of chasing down other orbiting spacecraft”, Paul Rincon wrote for BBC on November 20, 2014[1].

This grim evaluation is connected to a story which started some months earlier. On May 23, 2014, a Rockot booster lifted off from Plesetsk cosmodrome (the main military cosmodrome of Russia), carrying three military satellites, officials quoted by open sources declared. A fourth object launched at that time was initially identified as “debris” (or Object 2014-028E) in the official US catalog, but after it had been flagged by monitors[2] after performing unusual maneuvers, the Russian Defense Ministry registered the object as Kosmos-2499[3]. A previous similar Russian activity was observed after a launch on December 25, 2013.

Recently, both America and China have carried out tests similar to that carried out by Russia: the Chinese Shijian 15 satellite launched on July 19, 2013, and the US ANGELS, launched on July 28, 2014, by U.S. Air Force[4].

Dr. James Oberg, a former NASA engineer and expert on the Russian space program told The Moscow Times: “Autonomous rendezvous by small satellites has always been considered a useful capability, for purposes of resupply, repair, inspection or even negation. … The fact that the recent Chinese and Russian experiments have been done with no official announcements, and appear independent of already existing [civilian] rendezvous systems, does suggest to me they are not for peaceful purposes”[5].

Patricia Lewis at the Chatham House think-tank said there are several explanations for the Russian satellite, some completely benign, some “substantially more bellicose”, and “each possible use would be experimental”, but makes little sense:  if it is an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), it creates space debris, which affects all the satellites, including Russian ones; if it is a device used for taking control of certain satellites, they can be hacked from the ground - as China recently did to a U.S. weather systems[6].

While “it is difficult to be sure that other countries’ satellite payloads are not ASATs”[7], China, Russia and the U.S. seem, each of them, by demonstrating their space capabilities, to dissuade the two others, with a significant collateral result: a growing concern about the behavior of the two other countries. Kosmos-2499 could be an ASAT weapon or for resupply, but the Western concerns could most be a consequence of the actual tensions between Russia and US. The ongoing political and strategic tensions might expand until reaching the space programs and the space cooperation between the two countries, and worries of the West are clearly amplified by an intentional non-declaration of one satellite launched by Russia together with three military ones.

[1] Paul RINCON, „Russia tests 'satellite catcher”, BBC, November 20, 2014, at the Internet address

[2] „The U.S. Air Force maintains a database of all known objects orbiting Earth — including Russian and Chinese, but not U.S., military spacecraft — which amateur space trackers use to monitor the activity of satellites and spacecraft”, Matthew BODNER, „Expert Says Russia, China and U.S. All Working on 'Satellite Killers'”,  The Moscow Times, November 18, 2014, at the Internet address

[3] Paul RINCON, op.cit.

[4] Matthew BODNER, op.cit.

[5] Ibidem

[6] Ibidem

[7] „This is especially true in regard to microsatellites, which are hard to track”, Michael E. O’HANLON, „Balancing U.S.Security Intrests in Space”, p. 413, in Toward a Theory of Space Power. Selected Essays, edited by Charles D. LUTES and Peter L. HAYS with A. MANZO, Lisa M. YAMBRICK, and M. Elaine BUNN, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, pp.406-420

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