In the Sky, the Sign of a New Cold War?

A bird? A plane? A Satellite-killing Satellite? A space vacuum-cleaner? A Russian space object launches a debate
Photograph by Getty Images

Some people call it the space vacuum.

Don't look now, but there is an unidentified object in orbit in outer space, launched there by the Russian military last spring that has satellite-trackers, amateur space-watchers, and bedroom Kremlinologists wondering, and wondering whether they should be worrying. (Join in here!)

In May, Russia launched a rocket carrying three Rodnick communications satellites to be added to a Russian military constellation. Along the way, it deployed what some onlookers figured was space debris. But last weekend, the object rejoined with the remains of the rocket stage that launched it. That’s not how debris usually acts—the hookup seemed decidedly intentional. “I have no idea what it is!” Patricia Lewis, a space security expert, told the Washington Post.

 The object has been dubbed, impersonally, Object 2014-28E; perhaps we need to know it better to give it a proper name. It could be, as the Financial Times put it, civilian in purpose: “a project to hoover up space junk, for example.” But Russia, which presumably would have crowed if it had invented such a useful device, has experts worried that it might mark the return of a space weapon.

In November, 1963, the Soviet Union gave birth to the first prototype of the Istrebitel Sputnik, or killer satellite. The goal was to approach an enemy satellite, and then blow it up. In November of 1968, the USSR managed to destroy a target satellite in orbit. Ten years later, it was wholly operational. As the Cold War came to an end, and the Iron Curtain lifted, however, the first president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, put a stop the program. That was right when the project became public, with a photo of the Istrebitel Sputnik.

By the beginning of 2010, the commander of Russia’s space forces, Oleg Ostapenko, was telling the country’s official news agency that the country had the capacity to respond to space threats. He said, according to Popular Mechanics, "The USSR was developing inspection and strike spacecraft. Our policy—there should be no war in space, but we are military people and should be ready for everything. Our activities in this direction would be dependent on others, but, trust me, we would be able to respond quickly and adequately." 

Whatever Object 2014-28E turns out to be—with cold-war-like warplane skirmishings in Scandinavia, and just months after a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was blown from the sky over eastern Ukraine by what Ukrainian and American officials described as a Russian-made antiaircraft missile—it might be time to start trusting Russia, at least on this.

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Photograph by Getty Images

 

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