A recent announcement by the US Space Force has confirmed that a mysterious Russian satellite, known as Kosmos 2499, has broken apart in Earth’s orbit. This event has created a hazardous cloud of debris that is now zipping around the planet, threatening other satellites and raising serious concerns. The 18th Space Defense Squadron confirmed that the satellite has broken into 85 pieces and is orbiting at an altitude of approximately 745 miles, which makes it unlikely for the debris to be removed anytime soon.
The Mysterious Launch of the Secret Russian Satellite
Kosmos 2499 was one of three satellites that Russia launched in secret from 2013 to 2015, and its origins are shrouded in mystery. On Christmas Day 2013, Russia launched a small Rokot rocket from Plesetsk, carrying three military communications satellites into orbit. However, space trackers soon noticed that the Rokot had also released a fourth object into orbit, which was later revealed to be the mystery satellite, Kosmos 2499. Russia eventually admitted to the United Nations that they had launched a fourth satellite, but its purpose remained unclear.
Suspicious Maneuvers in Orbit
A few months after the launch of Kosmos 2499, it began making suspicious maneuvers in orbit, dropping and raising its altitude, until it brought itself “suspiciously close” to the rocket stage that had delivered it to orbit. For nearly half a year, the satellite trailed its rocket stage and repeatedly maneuvered close to it. It then transmitted telemetry data back to Earth in Morse code, leading to speculation that Russia was testing technology to follow or wreck other satellites. Despite the bizarre behavior, the head of Roscosmos, Oleg Ostapenko, assured the world in a December 2014 press conference that Kosmos 2491 and Kosmos 2499 were not “killer satellites” and had peaceful and educational purposes. However, he never specified what the mission was.
The Break-up of the Secret Russian Satellite
The cause of the satellite’s break-up is not yet clear, but space-debris expert Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation doesn’t think that a collision caused it. He suggests that the events could be the result of a design error in the fuel tanks or other systems that ruptured after several years in space. A preliminary analysis by LeoLabs, a company that tracks objects in Earth’s orbit, points toward a low-intensity explosion likely from the satellite’s propulsion system. The company stated that as more fragments get cataloged and included in the analysis, a more definitive cause of the event can be provided. Understanding why these types of events occur is crucial in preventing them from happening in the future.