Is Russian Mystery Object a Space Weapon?

Some space analysts wonder if Object 2014-28E could be part of a Russian anti-satellite program.

The orbital maneuvers of a mysterious object Russia launched earlier this year have raised concerns that the satellite may be a space weapon of some sort.

The speculation centers on "Object 2014-28E," which Russia lofted along with three military communications satellites in May. Russian officials did not declare the object as part of the launch, and it was originally thought to be space junk. But satellite trackers have watched it perform a number of interesting maneuvers over the past few weeks, the Financial Times reported Monday (Nov. 17).

Last weekend, for example, 2014-28E apparently met up with the remnants of a rocket stage that helped the object reach orbit. [The Most Destructive Space Weapons Concepts]

As a result, some space analysts wonder if Object 2014-28E could be part of an anti-satellite program - perhaps a revived version of the Cold War-era "Istrebitel Sputnikov" ("satellite killer") project, which Russian officials have said was retired when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

Military officials have long regarded the ability to destroy or disable another country's satellites as a key national-security capability. The Soviet Union is not the only nation known to have worked on developing such technology; China destroyed one of its own weather satellites in a 2007 test that spawned a huge cloud of orbital debris, and the United States blew up one of its own defunct spacecraft in 2008.

The concern about Object 2014-28E is legitimate, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. But she cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying that Russia could have a number of purposes in mind for the technology that 2014-28E may be testing out.

"Any satellite with the capability to maneuver has the potential to be a weapon," Johnson-Freese told "But does that mean necessarily that all maneuverable satellites are weapons? No."

The United States has also worked to develop maneuverable-satellite technology, she noted, citing the Air Force's Experimental Satellite System-11 (XSS-11) and NASA's DART (Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology) spacecraft, both of which launched in 2005. Further, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) managed a mission called Orbital Express, which launched in 2007 to test out satellite-servicing tech.

"When we did DART and XSS-11, other countries went into panic mode - you know, 'The U.S. has space weapons,'" Johnson-Freese said. "The first thing we did was assuage those concerns and say, 'No, no. That's not what it is. It's just a maneuverable satellite.' But any time you have dual-use technology, there are going to be concerns."

And pretty much all space technology is dual-use, said Brian Weeden, a technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation (a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability) and a former orbital analyst with the Air Force. For example, spacecraft capable of orbital rendezvous operations could help a nation inspect, service and refuel its satellites, or deorbit defunct craft to help mitigate the growing space-junk problem.

Weeden thinks it's unlikely that Object 2014-28E is up to anything nefarious.

"The activities are much more in line with an inspection mission than with any sort of destruction mission," he told

The secrecy surrounding the spacecraft helps fuel speculation about its mission, as does the fact that U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated in the wake of Russia's intervention in Ukraine earlier this year, Weeden said.

"I think if this had happened in a different context, the speculation would be different," Weeden said. "But because it's occurring in the context of heightened tensions, there's more of a proclivity to assume the worst."

Russia likely regards Object 2014-28E's mission as a national-security activity in space, he added. The secrecy is thus unsurprising, as Russia tends to keep a tight lid on such missions as a matter of policy.

And Russian officials may be happy to keep quiet and let the mystery and speculation continue to build, Johnson-Freese said.

"I think that anything the Russians can do to provoke the United States right now, their government is supportive of," she said. "If this can cause concern in the United States, they're all for it."

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Orbits of debris generated one month after a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test; the white orbit represents the International Space Station. In May 2014, Russia launched a mystery object that some experts say could be an anti-satellite weapon.

Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars

Aug. 24, 2012 --

Since the dramatic powered landing of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) on Aug. 5/6, the one-ton rover has achieved a number of "firsts." It was the first planetary mission to use the exciting Sky Crane maneuver; the first to shoot lasers (for science); it's even the first nuclear-powered rover to put tread marks into Martian dirt. But it certainly isn't the first rover on the Red Planet -- two generations of Mars rover came before it. And the numerous stationary landers have also left their mark. To any hypothetical Martians on the Red Planet, it may look like an alien invasion is underway -- but these aliens come from the Blue Planet and they seem to insist on sending wave after wave of increasingly sophisticated robotic probes that dig, burn, scour and damage their pristine landscape! So, as we watch the incredible Curiosity rover dominate Gale Crater, it's time to take a step back and contemplate how these surface missions have changed the Martian landscape.

The First Rove As we ooh and aah over Curiosity's plus-sized wheel marks, it's time to turn the clock back to 1997 when a 2-foot long wheeled robot made its first, tentative sojourn onto Mars. NASA's Mars Pathfinder mission was the first successful rover mission to the Red Planet (the first attempts were the Soviet Mars 2 and Mars 3 surface missions in 1971 -- both failed) that saw the Sojourner rover explore its landing site for over 80 days after landing on July 4. Its primary mission was only seven days. The little rover left behind plenty of tire tracks that likely persisted for some time after the mission concluded -- they probably quickly became filled with Mars dust and eroded by winds.

Orbital Tracks The immensely successful Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity is in its ninth year of operations since landing on Mars on Jan. 25, 2004. As the rover continues to explore the Red Planet, notching up over 20 miles on the odometer (so far!), it has also left an impressive history of tire tracks. Amazingly, these tracks can be seen from orbit and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been able to keep a close eye over its roving cousin from space using its High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. In this orbital snapshot, Opportunity can be seen at the edge of Victoria Crater (in 2006), plus wheel tracks. Like Sojourner, these tracks are not permanent, Mars' weather will erode them over time. So it's fortunate that Opportunity is still roving, creating new tracks.

Trench Digging MER Spirit, Opportunity's ill-fated sister rover, also surpassed her "warranty" by five years after landing on Mars on Jan. 4, 2004. Sadly, after becoming immobilized in a sand trap inside Gusev Crater in 2009, rescue attempts failed and the rover was confirmed lost after it stopped transmitting in March 2010. Spirit didn't travel as far as Opportunity -- logging nearly 5 miles -- and had a harder time on the surface of Mars. Early in the mission on March 13, 2006, one of the rover's wheels ceased working, forcing rover drivers to drive Spirit backwards, dragging the dead wheel behind it. Serendipitously, the frozen wheel became a handy trench-digger, creating a deep groove in the loose top soil as it roved. Material that would have otherwise been inaccessible could be glimpsed. Spirit's roving tracks will therefore likely remain visible on Mars for some time to come due to a sticky wheel.

Branding Rocks But it's not just tire tracks Spirit and Opportunity left on Mars, they have created a rather more permanent calling card. Using the rock abrasion tool mounted to both rovers' robotic arms, the wheeled robots have scoured the surface layers off a number of rocks for scientific study. On each rock, a 45 millimeter diameter circular "branding" has been left behind.

Laser Tattooing Rocks Although tagging rocks with circles is certainly cool (and of high scientific merit), the new rover on the Mars block has been outfitted with an instrument to laser-blast rocks with. Curiosity's ChemCam instrument mounted atop its mast can shoot rocks at a distance with a powerful laser beam, burning the surface layers. The resulting flash of light contains information about the rock's constituents, which ChemCam analyzes. Like Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity can leave its own calling card -- a tiny, permanent laser'd tattoo.

Bouncy Bouncy Landing on Mars is serious business, and some very inventive methods have been used. The 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, for example, touched-down with a bounce -- airbags were deployed, ensuring a cushioned impact with the ground after descent through the atmosphere. Airbags were also deployed during the landings of Spirit and Opportunity in January 2004. In this photograph, Opportunity retraced its bounce-marks to see impressions of the airbags preserved in the Martian regolith. The bags' seams can be seen. As the airbag bounce only imprinted the uppermost surface, it's likely these impressions were rapidly blown away and/or covered with dust.

Rocket Excavation Of course, Curiosity has to go one-better than its predecessors. During the powered landing of the rover, the Sky Crane's rocket-powered assembly delivered a huge amount of thrust to make sure Curiosity had a soft landing (air-bags aren't a viable landing method when delivering a rover the size of a car). Although debris was blown atop the rover, potentially damaging a wind sensor, the maneuver was a resounding success. But evidence of the landing has been spied around the rover. Areas of excavated material, creating shallow craters, surrounded the rover after landing. This ended up being a fortuitous event -- loose surface layers of dust and gravel were blown away, exposing the bedrock of Gale Crater. The bedrock has been the focus of study and the craters will likely be some long-term scarring of the Martian surface.

Crash and Burn Although the Sky Crane landed Curiosity safely to the surface, the rocket-powered platform suffered a messy demise. After its job was done, it throttled-up and flew far away from the rover, ditching into the Mars landscape. This HiRISE image shows the carnage that the Sky Crane's mass left behind after impact -- a site to remember the Sky Crane's good work.

Man-Made Meteorites Shortly after Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere, as it began its descent, the rover's aeroshell (a capsule composed of a heatshield and backshell) jettisoned six 55-pound (25-kilogram) tungsten slugs to improve its stability as it used the Martian atmosphere to steer to its target. These ballast slugs slammed into the Martian surface -- basically man-made meteorites -- and could be spotted from orbit.

Phoenix With all the excitement surrounding rovers, it's about time to remember the not-so-mobile Mars explorers. On May 25, 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander touched down in Mars' arctic region to carry out experiments in a region we know little about. Using its arm-mounted scoop, the lander was able to retrieve samples from the freezing ground, dropping the material into its chemical laboratory for analysis. Phoenix made the landmark discovery of perchlorate in the soil and found water ice (that slowly sublimated) in the uppermost layers of the permafrost. Although Phoenix was never going to last long -- the arctic winter most likely cocooned the robot in ice. By Nov. 2, 2008, the mission was declared lost. Surrounding the landing site, however, small trench marks will likely remain -- remnants of Phoenix's science.

The Trendsetter NASA's first landers also left their mark on Mars. The Viking landers were hugely successful, returning the first images from the Martian surface and carrying out a suite of experiments to directly search for microbial life. Viking 1 lasted from July 1976 to November 1982; Viking 2 lasted from September 1976 to April 1980. To this day, the Viking experimental results are debated, but the deep trenches that were dug likely remain behind. MORE: Mars Curiosity 'Litter Bug' Spied from Orbit: Photos