The US says Russia just tested an “anti-satellite weapon” in orbit

The US Space Command has announced it’s found evidence that Russia recently conducted a test of anti-satellite weapons , albeit one that did not destroy or harm any objects. SpaceCom claims that on July 15, Russian satellite Kosmos 2543 deployed a new object into its own orbit, similar to a previous anti-satellite demonstration in 2017. 

What does that mean? A US SpaceCom spokesperson told MIT Technology Review that Kosmos 2543 had been operating “abnormally close” to a US government satellite in low Earth orbit, before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite. Kosmos 2543 then released another object in proximity to the Russian target satellite. This test, SpaceCom says, is “inconsistent” with Kosmos 2543’s stated purpose as an “inspector satellite,” and is actually a demonstration of anti-satellite weaponry.  

What’s an inspector satellite? For the last several years, Russia has said it has been running a program to test out inspection technologies that can monitor its own satellites in orbit, purportedly to make sure those satellites are running properly. 

There’s nothing illegal about the inspector satellites. But the US doesn’t believe  they are what Russia claims they are. Russia has a very long history of putting its satellites in close proximity with other objects in ways that suggest it’s demonstrating potential weapons, or trying to spy on other countries’ assets. In February, satellite experts noticed that another Russian satellite (Kosmos 2542) was seemingly stalking an American satellite (USA 245).  And in 2017, a Russian satellite released a high-speed projectile in close proximity to another Russian satellite. At the time, the US said this was a weapons demonstration.

The new report “does bring up the idea of the importance of having agreed-upon norms of behavior so that all are on the same page in terms of what is considered responsible activity in space and what is considered threatening,” says Victoria Samson from the Secure World Foundation, an expert in space security. Space-based conflicts are an extremely new arena for the world, and there are still very few rules and agreements in place to define what constitutes a threatening action.

Questions remain: SpaceCom’s report is vague on a lot of details. We don’t yet know whether Kosmos 2543 still poses an immediate threat to any American satellites, or any assets controlled by other countries; nor do we know how the US plans to respond to this new evidence. SpaceCom’s spokesperson did not address these questions in its comments to MIT Technology Review.