An unidentified flying object, secret space tests and a “satellite killer” all sound like parts of a science fiction movie, but recently they have been parts of legitimate news stories. Russia’s latest satellite launches have brought up fears that they are testing a satellite killer, or a satellite that can intercept and possibly destroy other satellites in orbit. There are, of course, less sinister possibilities which are just as likely. The United States and China have tested satellites that could help with repairs by being maneuverable and semi-autonomous. What makes people think that Russia’s satellite could be a weapon is the secrecy and mystery surrounding its launch and mission.
Back in December of 2013, the Russians launched three spacecraft into orbit in order to add new satellites. At the same time, however, it secretly launched a fourth craft into orbit without informing anyone. It was classified as an unidentified flying object by the United States military and given the name Object 2014-28E, but in May of this year the Russians admitted that they had launched it. The nature of its capabilities and mission is unknown, but satellite observers who have watched its movements say that it has maneuvered close to other satellites, specifically the inactive Russian Briz-KM.
This has led some to speculate that it is a test for a new satellite inspector, a type of satellite that stalks and spies on other satellites to monitor their communications. Or Russia’s mystery satellite could be a weapon designed to search and destroy other satellites in space. As sci-fi as that sounds, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The United States and China have tested semi-autonomous satellites which could be used to clear debris, repair other satellites or work on the international space station. Experts have been quick to point out these possibilities.
They have also pointed out that using a satellite to bring down another satellite as some kind of cyber warfare is pretty ridiculous. Not only is it expensive, but it is possible to hack the system from the ground, which China has apparently already done.The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the hack of America’s weather satellite system, but the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) have confirmed that the attack came from China. The Chinese Embassy went on record saying that “cyberattack is quite common in today’s cyberspace.” That is exactly what this story illustrates, as well as the vulnerabilities to ground-based attacks. In the long run, the Russians do not need a satellite killer. They could just use a computer and a million or so lines of code to achieve the same effect.
All in all, the speculation that this latest news reveals nefarious intentions by the Russians is not supported by hard facts. The idea that mystery satellite could be Russia’s secret weapon in space is exciting and terrifying in equal degrees, but it is unconfirmed. International treaties prohibit the testing of such weapons and at this point it seems that the country is in compliance with these treaties. Should they violate the treaties, action would no doubt be taken. But for now, nothing is certain until more solid information is released about what exactly the Russians are doing in space.
By Lydia Bradbury