Officials from the US and the UK have accused Russia of firing an anti—satellite weapon on July 15th. According to US Space Command, the Defense Department arm that’s responsible for military operations in outer space, it found evidence that Russia conducted a non-destructive test of the new technology. The projectile was inserted into orbit by Cosmos 2543, one of the two Russian satellites that launched in November 2019.
As Time noted, officials have been keeping a close eye on it and its twin (Cosmos 2542) since then, especially after they passed close to a powerful US military reconnaissance satellite called KH-11. US officials previously raised concerns that Russian satellites don’t behave in a consistent manner with their stated missions.
Officially, Cosmos 2543’s purpose is to monitor the condition of other Russian spacecraft in orbit, and the country’s authorities insist that’s all there is to it. The Russian Defense ministry told Interfax news agency (via Wall Street Journal): “One of the domestically produced satellites was examined from a close distance by specialized equipment of a small spacecraft during trials of state-of-the-art items.” But Space Command said it fired a projectile after moving near another Russian satellite, reportedly to test its capability to attack one.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said an analysis of publicly available satellite orbit data showed that Cosmos 2543 birthed another object at a relative velocity of over 400 mph. That’s consistent with a projectile being fired. It also closely resembled Russia’s activity back in February 2017, wherein it also used a satellite to launch a projectile in space.
While there’s no evidence of any spacecraft being destroyed, US Space Command chief and US Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond condemned the activity. He said in a statement:
“The Russian satellite system used to conduct this on-orbit weapons test is the same satellite system that we raised concerns about earlier this year, when Russia maneuvered near a US government satellite. This is 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.
The United States, in coordination with our allies, is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the Nation, our allies and vital US interests from hostile acts in space.”
UK space directorate Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth also urged Russia to be responsible and to “avoid any further such testing.” He explained that “[a]ctions like this 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.”