A Russian satellite is behaving odd in orbit and the US thinks it could be a weapon in space. According to a statement made by the US State Department, the satellite's behavior has been found to be "inconsistent" with its mission statement.
Russia claims that this satellite was originally designed to manoeuvre toward satellites already in orbit and inspect them. This reportedly raised a few flags with the American intelligence community, reports Popular Mechanics.
This is a matter of concern for the Americans because both the military and intelligence community rely on satellites for most of their operations including communication and navigation, as well as spying. Russia, traditionally rival to the US in space missions, could possibly attack the US satellite fleet and gain easy advantages in times of crisis, notes the report.
First launched in June 2017, Russia announced, two months later that it was a "small-sized satellite....designed for different types of payload." This payload, was reportedly a smaller satellite which launched itself off the main craft so that it could inspect the condition of the Russian satellite.
By August, 2018, Yleem Poblete, State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance is reported to have made a statement in Geneva, Switzerland, saying, "In October of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object they claimed was a 'space apparatus inspector.' But its behaviour on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We don't know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it."
However, the Russians have countered by saying that the parent satellite, called Kosmos-2519 is home to the smaller satellite and that it, "conducted autonomous flight, a change in orbit, and a satellite inspection before returning to the base station."
Having satellites conduct inspections in orbit is a new development in space tech. Satellites, while tough and built to last for several years in orbit, outer space is a hostile and dangerous environment. So if and when something does malfunction, it is not easy to diagnose the problem, notes the report.
Having another satellite in orbit whose main function is to carry out inspections can be an invaluable tool for ground engineers to fly up to a satellite and find out exactly what is wrong with it.
This is also the reason why such satellites could easily be used as weapons. It is primarily a vehicle that is built to specifically fly towards other satellites and check them. So it is not far fetched to think that one could easily take pictures of other satellites in orbit. To go on the offensive, inspection satellites could very easily fire lasers at another country's satellites and kill them. If not, it could simply crash into a satellite and drag it down to Earth.
As to how the US knows what is really going on up there without actually seeing for sure as it is not exactly possible to see these objects in space with such detail, but it can observe Kosmos-2519's behavior and it looks like the Americans did in fact see something suspicious, notes the report.
What exactly did the US see that has them spooked? We might never know.