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Mystery Russian satellite: orbital weapon? Sat gobbler? What?

Watchers confess they're baffled

A Russian spacecraft – conceivably some kind of satellite-nobbling or -gobbling orbital weapons platform – is circling Earth, and Russia isn't saying anything about it.

Nobody seems to know what it’s doing up there, nor what it's capable of doing.

Kosmos 2499, Object 2014-28E or NORAD 39765, whatever you call it, this strange craft appears to have gone up as an extra satellite from a planned launch, but Russia has never said what it’s for.

According to reports from the Financial Times and Russian Space Web, the orbiter is manoeuvrable and is the second secret Russian sat to be launched in the past two years.

The first went up in December last year, when a Rockot booster set off to replenish the Rodnik communications satellite constellation carrying three new sats. However, a fourth object also went into orbit at the same time, which skywatchers initially believed was space junk – until it started moving around with purpose.

The second launch took place in May this year, when another Rockot booster took off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, ostensibly carrying three military satellites, but once again also releasing a fourth payload that was first designated as debris before onlookers claimed it made a clear manoeuvre.

Naturally, the tendency is for everyone to start panicking about the Cold War and assuming that the craft is some sort of war satellite or an anti-satellite weapon that’s going to start shooting all of the other sats out of the sky. But it could also be any other kind of experimental craft that the Russians just don’t feel like revealing yet because they’re just trying it out.

After all, it’s not as if other countries don’t have their own super-secret sats to play with, such as the US’s X-37b spaceplanes, the robot minishuttles that have been zipping up and down doing no one knows what for a few years now.

Kosmos 2499 made a number of changes in its trajectory before appearing to rendezvous with the Briz-KM stage, which delivered it into space back in May earlier this month. The two crafts came within a kilometre of each other at their closest pass, though why the satellite would be interested in the remains of the rocket stage is a mystery.

It could indicate a test of robotic refuelling or repairs, or an experimental way to sort out space debris, or it could be something entirely more nefarious.

“Whatever it is, [Object 2014-28E] looks experimental,” Patricia Lewis, research director at think-tank Chatham House and an expert in space security, told the FT.

“It could have a number of functions, some civilian and some military. One possibility is for some kind of grabber bar. Another would be kinetic pellets which shoot out at another satellite. Or possibly there could be a satellite-to-satellite cyber attack or jamming.” ®

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