Launch of projectile from satellite into orbit ‘threatens the peaceful use of space’
The US and UK have accused Russia of testing an anti-satellite weapon in space, in the latest sign that a space-based arms race is heating up.
General John Raymond, the head of the new US Space Force, said the alleged test of a projectile, conducted on 15 July, was “further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold US and allied space assets at risk.”
He said that the weapon was launched from one of two satellites which manoeuvred close to a US government satellite earlier this year. Russia has insisted its space activities are purely peaceful, but Raymond said the activities of the spacecraft involved in the launch were inconsistent with its official designation as an inspection satellite.
A US Space Command statement said Russia carried similar “on-orbit activity” in 2017, an apparent reference to a previously unreported Russian test of a satellite-launched weapon.
The head of the UK’s space directorate, Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, said: “We are concerned by the manner in which Russia tested one of its satellites by launching a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon.
“Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends. We call on Russia to avoid any further such testing.
“We also urge Russia to continue to work constructively with the UK and other partners to encourage responsible behaviour in space.”
There are no recorded cases of tests of such space-launched anti-satellite weapons by other countries. Both the US and China have destroyed their own malfunctioning satellites using missiles fired from sea and land respectively. But most military activities in space are highly secret.
“I don’t want to speculate on what the US does or doesn’t do,” Tom Karako, director of the missile defence project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “I think it’s fair to say that we honour the expectations of good conduct and space better than some of our other rivals.”
According to an account in Time magazine on Thursday, a Russian military satellite, Kosmos 2542 was launched from Plesetsk Cosmodrome last 26 November and 11 days later it “birthed” a second satellite Kosmos 2543.
In January, the two satellites came close to a US military surveillance satellite, KH-11, reputed to be as powerful in image resolution as the Hubble space telescope. The two Russian satellites pulled away when the US complained. Six months later, it is Kosmos 2543 that is believed to have fired a projectile into outer space.
“My takeaway here is: it’s not new. What’s new is the space force is leaning forward and talking about what’s going on,” Karako said. “The Russians are quite willing to conduct these provocations openly in space just as they are on the ground.”