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UK and US say Russia launched a weapon in space

Gen. John "Jay" Raymond said, 'This is further evidence of Russia's continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems.'

Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images

The U.S. and United Kingdom accused Russia of testing a weapon that could attack satellites in space. The U.S. Space Command said on Thursday that it had evidence that Russia "conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon" last week.

The U.S. Space Command alleges that a Russian satellite "injected a new object into orbit" on July 15. The Russian satellite named "Cosmos 2543" released an unidentified object into orbit near another Russian satellite.

Cosmos 2543 is reportedly an inspector satellite, but the U.S. Space Command said the satellite's activity was "inconsistent with their stated mission" as an inspector satellite.

The U.S. State Department questioned the motives of the Cosmos 2543 satellite in 2018 when it exhibited "characteristics of a space-based weapon." The Department of State declared the behavior "hypocritical and concerning."

"This event highlights Russia's hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control, with which Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counter space program — both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry," said Dr. Christopher Ford, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State.

"We don't have definitive proof, but I think it is," Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. "It stands out as different from all the other rendezvous and proximity operations that have been going on.

"It's mostly satellites coming close to other Russian satellites or other Russian rocket bodies slowly — like a slow approach over several days," said Weeden. "And then they might back away, and then they'll come close again, then they'll hang out nearby. That's the sort of thing we've been watching."

"On July 15, Cosmos 2543 deployed a smaller object at a relatively high speed (roughly 200 m/s or about 400 mph) that is unusual for the typical satellite deployment," Weeden said.

In January, Cosmos 2543 and another Russian "inspection satellite" named Cosmos 2542 were spotted seemingly stalking a U.S. reconnaissance satellite operated by the National Reconnaissance Office that is named "USA 245," known to space experts as a "KH-11."

"We view this behavior as unusual and disturbing," Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, Commander of U.S. Space Command and U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, told Time magazine in February. "It has the potential to create a dangerous situation in space."

"The United States finds these recent activities to be concerning and do not reflect the behavior of a responsible space-faring nation," Raymond said.

"Last November the Russian government launched a satellite that subsequently released a second satellite," Gen. Raymond told CNBC in February. "These satellites have been actively maneuvering near a U.S. government satellite … which the Russian government characterized as 'inspector satellites.'"

Now Raymond is pointing out that Russia's Cosmos 2543 is likely a weapon.

"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 U.S. government satellite," Raymond said in a statement. "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 U.S. and allied space assets at risk."

The Space Command claims there was also a Russian anti-satellite test carried out in 2017. Russians launched a satellite and "a smaller satellite was birthed" and then "a projectile was launched" from the satellite, Stephen L. Kitay, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, told the Pentagon last month.

Kitay said that China and Russia were "actively developing capabilities to negate U.S. allied and partnered space systems, we are left with no choice but to ensure we are prepared with the necessary means to protect and defend ourselves from attacks to our systems."

"I wish I could say that space was a sea of tranquility and a sanctuary from attack. But the fact of the matter is, space is contested," Kitay added. "Outer space has emerged as a key arena of potential conflict in an era of great power competition."

Russia and the United States are two of 110 countries that have signed the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits putting weapons in orbit or space.

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