Space: Deliberate Encounters Of the Worst Kind


September 10, 2018: Something really strange is going on up there. On June 23, 2017, Russia launched a new satellite (Kosmos-2519) into orbit. Like most new satellites it was tracked from the earth and engaged in some unexpected behavior. Initially, Kosmos-2519 demonstrated that it was maneuverable and changed its orbit twice. Most modern satellites have some maneuvering ability so this was not strange. Then on August 23, 2017, Kosmos-2519 deployed another satellite (Kosmos-2521) which Russia announced was a “satellite inspector.” These are not unusual, but they are usually sent up by themselves, not as part of a larger satellite. Kosmos-2521 spent the next two months maneuvering around Kosmos-2519 as if testing its ability to get close to another satellite. Then at the end of October 2017 Kosmos-2521 also deployed a smaller satellite (Kosmos-2523) which did not maneuver. After that and into early 2018 the original Kosmos-2519 did all the maneuvering, using the smaller Kosmos-2521 as the test subject. In February 2018 Kosmos-2521 began maneuvering again, using Kosmos-2519 to maneuver around. In June and July Kosmos-2519 again began maneuvering, changing orbit several times but not moving since July 19. The next day Kosmos-2521 also changed its orbit and has not moved since then.

At this point, the Russians were not talking about what this agile trio was up to but foreign observers, especially those who specialize in satellite security noted that this trio had exhibited the mission profile of a sophisticated “killsat” (satellite killer). Worse the Russian satellites exhibited the profile of an advanced killsat that did not just destroy other satellites but that could sabotage them or attach devices that would monitor, or even modify, what the satellite did. Until now such an advanced killsat had been theoretical but this appeared to be the first time someone built and tested a prototype. One advantage of such an advanced killsat is that it does not blast (by explosives or collision) other satellites into hundreds (or thousands) of pieces that then become an unstable debris swarm that is a danger to everyone’s satellites. This new kind of killsat can sabotage or take control of other satellites. Much better. In response to repeated queries, all Russia would say was that the nimble trio were tests of new technology.

At the same time (August 2018) Russia did announce that it was reviving its Cold War global network of ground-based observatories that monitored all orbiting objects. Russia had deactivated these observatories in the 1990s after the Soviet Union dissolved and formed 14 new nations. Russia has arranged to revive some of the observatories in former parts of the Soviet Union as well as ones it maintained in foreign countries (Bolivia and Mexico). Russia will expand the network with new observatories in eastern Russia. This network will track more than 5,000 objects, including spacecraft and new satellites.

This observatories decision follows one in mid-2016 when Russia announced it was going to make public its database of known objects in orbit around the earth. This would include all its own satellites as well as non-Russian satellites it had located and was tracking. Russia proposed that other nations who put satellites in orbit to do the same and let the UN manage this master database. Russia pointed out that the database it is putting online lists 40 percent more objects than any publically available American database and that this is largely because Russia has more telescopes and radars watching orbital space and has these observers operating from locations all over the largest nation on the planet.

The United States has a classified database of all satellites it knows about, including their status (active, inactive, and when some are about to plunge to earth). The United States did not jump at the opportunity to join this unclassified master database because that would mean revealing satellites that have managed to keep their location secret. The U.S. is more concerned about letting China know where its hidden satellites are. Russia is no longer able, because of shortages of cash and tech, to put up as many satellites as it did during the Cold War. The U.S. sees China as the new threat and has already accused China of putting secret anti-satellite devices in orbit. China and Russia are allies and the U.S. does not trust either of them to keep their promises. Russia is pitching this database idea to the UN as a positive step in policing international agreements to not weaponize space. None of the other nations that can put satellites up trust China either but Russia has nothing to lose and much to gain by making an issue of its proposal in the UN. The activity of Kosmos-2519 and its sub satellites over the last year show that Russia is still a contender in the area of killsats and efforts to control what goes on in orbital space.

Meanwhile, there is a growing need to find, track and report orbital debris as well as satellites. That effort has been going on for decades and actually gets a lot of international cooperation, even though it has long been believed that the major satellite producers (the U.S., China and Russia) have not revealed all they know. Despite that there is a growing need for as complete a debris database as possible to be maintained and made public. For example, in early 2013 Russia reported that one of its satellites was hit and damaged by debris from a Chinese satellite that China had destroyed in a 2007 anti-satellite weapon test. This is only the second time that an active (still operational) satellite was hit by orbital debris. The last time was in 2009 when an American satellite was hit by a dead Russian satellite. Since then owners of active satellites have paid more attention to where all the space junk (debris) is up there and it is more common for active satellites to move out of the way of oncoming concentrations of debris. This uses up precious fuel, which is normally used to maintain a low flying satellite in the proper orbit. When the fuel is gone, so is the ability to move and the usefulness of the satellite.

The 2009 loss was an American Iridium satellite, which supplies satellite phone service and was at an altitude of about 770 kilometers over central Russia. The Iridium satellite was hit by a dead Russian communications satellite (the one ton Cosmos 2251, equipped with a nuclear power supply, launched in 1993). The Russian bird could not be moved, nor could the Iridium (which, while active, was not equipped with thrusters for movement). The Iridium bird was one of sixty, so satellite phone services were not interrupted because of the spare capacity in the system. The collision turned the two satellites into 600 bits of debris.

The last time anything like this happened was in 1991 when a dead satellite ran into debris from another and created more debris. There have been two deliberate collisions since then. In 2007, China launched a "killsat" that maneuvered into the path of a dead Chinese weather satellite and destroyed it. In 2008, the U.S. Navy used one of its Aegis equipped warships to destroy a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite with an anti-missile missile. Russia and China have since called for such U.S. activity to be outlawed.

Since the late 1950s, humans have been putting objects into orbit and there is a rapidly growing collection of junk up there. Currently, over 300,000 dangerous objects 10 mm (.4 inch) in size have been identified. The smallest of these is capable of disabling a satellite, or damaging a spacecraft, mainly because these objects collide at very high speed (9-10 times faster than a bullet) when the two objects are coming from different directions.

There are nearly 22,000 objects 10 centimeters (4 inches) or larger in LEO (low earth orbit) and 500,000 smaller objects that are still large enough to cause damage. All of these can do some catastrophic damage to satellites or spacecraft. There are millions of objects smaller than 10mm, and these are responsible for many satellites failing early because of cumulative damage from getting hit by several of these micro objects. There are over 250 commercial satellites up there, plus nearly as many military ones.

There are a lot of people keeping an eye on this clutter. The U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance Network, which tracks objects 10mm and larger, stopped sharing all of its information in 2004, for national security reasons. The Russian Space Surveillance System is known to use radar to track over 5,000 objects in low orbit. But until recently the Russians have never shared this data completely or regularly. Filling in the gaps are two international organizations, IADC (Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee) and ISON (International Space Observation Network). IADC is a government operation, whose members include the U.S. NASA and the equivalents in Russia, China, and several other major nations. Like most government organizations, not all data is shared.

ISON is a non-government organization, and they come up with some of the most interesting stuff. ISON comprises 18 scientific institutions, 18 observatories, 25 telescopes, and over a hundred professionals. ISON does not, as far as anyone knows, withhold data because of any national security concerns. This is fairly certain because ISON work is monitored, and complemented, by the efforts of thousands of amateur astronomers and orbital addicts who connect via the Internet and constantly scour the orbital space for new objects and dangerous movements by existing ones.

ISON has already spotted more than 200 larger (over 10mm) objects that have never been reported by any of the government organizations. The Internet based amateurs are often the first to spot a lot of this new activity, mainly because they have more eyeballs, and, in some cases, impressive optical equipment searching the skies.

When someone spots an object headed for a maneuverable satellite, the owner is alerted and the bird is moved. This has happened several times in the last few years. The number of dangerous objects up there increases 10-20 percent a year. That's even with many of them falling into the atmosphere and burning up each year. Apparently, no one was able to predict the 2009 collision between Cosmos 2251 and the Iridium bird, nor the recent collision, largely because the high speed of these objects, and slight instability of their orbits can turn an expected near miss into a direct hit.

Now it’s not the accidental encounters you have to worry about but the deliberate ones. While satellite spotters eventually locate and identify anything put up there few objects are observed 24/7. The Russians could simply pick a time when a target satellite was least likely to be observed and send in their maneuverable spy sat to do whatever it needs to do and then change orbit and disappear for a while. Such deliberate encounters are a larger worry than accidental ones.


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