Jul 28, 2020 - Science

What we know about Russia's anti-satellite weapon

Earth as seen from orbit

Photo: NASA

On July 15, Russia ratcheted up international tensions by testing what appears to be a weapon to destroy enemy satellites in space, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. But this is far from the first time the country has put on a display of force in orbit.

Why it matters: Russia has been building out its space weapons capabilities for years. The recent test — which did not destroy a satellite — comes after Russia staged another anti-satellite test of a different kind of system in April.

Driving the news: Russia's Cosmos 2543 satellite appeared to release a projectile near another Russian satellite on July 15.

  • Cosmos 2543 had been flying near a powerful U.S. spy satellite before the test.
  • The test may be part of a Russian program to develop a space-based anti-satellite weapon that could one day be launched from aircraft, the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden tells me.
  • However, information is sparse, and it's not clear exactly where this test fits in within Russia's broader capabilities.
  • The test was also similar to another Russian test staged in 2017.

The big picture: Space is a warfighting domain. The U.S. military relies on satellite imagery and other data beamed back to Earth by a small group of extremely powerful satellites to make accurate decisions about strategy.

  • That small number of high-powered National Reconnaissance Office satellites can actually be something of a liability for the U.S., Weeden added.
  • This small number of particularly expensive satellites make them very high-value targets, putting them at risk.
  • On the other hand: "China has been developing a lot of these similar capabilities, but they're doing it a different way. So they have satellites that do imagery and signals and stuff, but they've got like 140 of them," Weeden said. "They're not nearly as good as what the NRO has, but they're good enough."
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