Russia has four ‘killer robots’ in orbit
SPACE junk is a critical problem. Dead satellites can stay in their orbits for centuries. Others are simply to expensive and important to allow to fail. So Russia's idea of armies of small 'fix-it' space drones makes sense.
But the United States has expressed fears that all may not be as its seems.
The alarm came just days after the US Vice President announced plans to create a new Space Force as an independent branch of the US military.
US Assistant Secretary of State Poblete last week called attention to the recent 'abnormal' behaviour of some Russian satellites. One had been seen deploying a small craft, sending it to a nearby satellite, and bringing it back to its dock.
This new 'apparatuses inspector' joins three other mysterious Russian satellites launched between 2013 and 2015.
Nobody knows what Kosmos-2491, 2499, and 2504 are for.
But their behaviour is extremely odd.
Russia didn't tell anybody it was launching Kosmos-2491 bundled among three civilian communications satellites. It was assumed to be just another piece of space junk until startled observers noticed it move under it own power.
All three have tracked as being apparently dead in space, until suddenly engaging in unusual degrees of maneuverability for small satellites.
In April last year, one adjusted its course sufficiently to pass within just 1.2km of a derelict Chinese weather satellite. That satellite had itself been the target of a controversial Chinese anti-satellite missile test in 2007.
There's no doubt these small Russian space-drones have already demonstrated their ability to spy on satellites. But can they also repair them? And what about hijack, disable or destroy?
Small, busy drone satellites sitting asleep in orbit until a call arrive. Their tiny engines suddenly flare into life, causing them to climb or dive hundreds of kilometres in hight, adjusting their speeds by hundreds of meters per second, and dramatically altering their orbits.
As a space maintenance and rescue service, it's an exciting prospect.
As an army of targeted killer space drones, it's terrifying.
At about the size of a small bar fridge, these robotic drones can carry retractable mechanical arms and probes. This enables them to physically manipulate any satellite it manages to get in its grasp.
That would be great for repairs and maintenance - the US has had to commit entire Space Shuttle missions to fixing the Hubble Space Telescope. They could also be used to attach updated equipment and refuel satellites when they run low.
But such drones could just as easily be used to smash sensitive optics, buckle directional transmitter arrays - or simply push a satellite out of position.
Hacking modules could be attached to a sensitive satellites's surface. Or it could just as easily be grappled and dragged back to a lander so its secrets could be revealed back on the ground.
Their small engines could position the space drone amid a concealing cloud of debris. It would then lay there, dormant and undetected, for years before being activated once again.
Their mobility could also allow them to position themselves along the line of secret, narrow-beam transmissions - either to jam or record the data being sent.
The possibilities are endless.
Which is why Russia's not the only nation to have tested manoeuvring satellites. The US, Sweden, Japan and China have all done so.
SPACE APPARATUS INSPECTOR
Russia has denounced US Assistant Secretary of State Poblete's concerns as "unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions."
But its own Ministry of Defence has added ample fuel to the fire.
Moscow announced in August 2017 that the Kosmos-2521 manoeuvring inspection space drone was launched from the Plesetsk launch facility on June 23, 2017. It described the system as a "small space apparatuses," adding it would be used for "examining the condition of a Russian satellite."
It added that it was a "space platform capable of carrying different payloads."
"In the longer term, a research experiment will be carried out to use the space apparatuses for examining the outward appearance of that satellite".
In October, the state-run Izvesta news source cited the Defence Ministry as saying: "In trials involving controlling the manoeuvring defence satellite, ground, and orbital communication systems were tested, and methods involving ballistic estimates and new software were employed. The space forces proved their ability to ensure the satellite's automatic undocking from the platform, the remote control of its flight, and the activation of the satellite payload, including surveillance hardware, data transfer to Earth, and data processing."
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The space drone was carried by a larger satellite, Kosmos-2519, before being deployed in orbit. It then flew itself to a different orbit, where it examined another satellite, before returning to its mother craft.
It's what it did on this round-trip that has the US spooked.
"(It was) not acting in a manner consistent with a satellite designed to conduct safe and responsible inspection operations," Poblete stated at a recent session of the UN Conference on Disarmament.
"Its behaviour on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behaviour by a declared 'space apparatuses inspector'."
She did not detail what that abnormal behaviour was.
ORBITAL ARMS RACE
Russia isn't all that bothered at keeping its space combat ambitions secret. Commander of Russias Space Force, Colonel General Sergei Surovikin recently told state media that "assimilating new prototypes of weapons into space force military units (was a) main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops".
They have a formidable array of weapons in development.
- A new interceptor fighter, the Mig-41, is purportedly intended to be an ultra-high altitude aircraft capable of carrying anti-satellite weaponry.
- The PL19/Nudol high-speed anti-satellite missile system has so far been tested at least six times.
- Existing transport aircraft are being adapted to carry the Porubshik-2 high-energy jamming system capable of blinding space and air-based radars and sensors.
- The Tirada-2S is a mobile directed-energy weapon being developed to jam satellite sensors, communications and processors.
- The new Peresvet mobile laser system is reputedly capable of shooting-down ballistic missiles as well as satellites.
US intelligence agencies say they have also observed small Chinese 'grappling' space drones in testing. These apparently are equipped with small thrusters able to bring them close to satellites, as well as retractable robotic arms.
These join an array of three different types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles, and a ground-based laser system.
Russia, however, isn't the only nation appearing to be playing covert games in orbit.
In January this year, a top-secret multibillion-dollar US satellite - dubbed Zuma - was launched by a Space X Falcon-9 rocket. Shortly after, rumours began to circulate that the classified mission had failed. That the project was a total loss. No new satellite was being tracked.
Space X insisted absolutely everything about the Falcon-9 rocket's mission was performed perfectly. However, it refused to comment about its secret military cargo.
"After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly," a SpaceX statement reads. "If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible."
The secret satellite may have failed to boot-up once in orbit. Its own propulsion and power systems may have failed. Or it could be a stealth satellite operating as intended - in secret.
It's not the only mystery the US has in orbit.
The X-37B robotic space plane has conducting experiments in orbit now for several years. One such flight lasted some 718 days. Most of these missions remain secret. But it carries its own propulsion system, as well as a small cargo bay for experimental payloads.
And the US has also been actively developing anti-ballistic missile technology in the face of growing threats from North Korea and Iran. The SM-3 interceptor missiles carried by its warships can also target satellites.
There are some 1200 active satellites in orbit. Half of them belong to the United States.
Russia has proposed to the UN a new treaty banning space weaponry. But the devil is in the fine print.
Poblete says Moscow is offering a treaty banning space weapons with one hand, while busily building exactly that capability with the other.
Its proposed draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) - which is backed by China - does not provide sufficient assurances that the possibility of conflict would not extend into orbit, she says.
"Based on the drafting of the treaty language by Russia, there is nothing in the proposed PPWT that would prohibit this sort of activity or the developing, testing, or stockpiling of anti-satellite weapons capabilities, so long as it doesn't damage another object in space," she told the UN gathering.