The head of the U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) said that Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) tests this year by the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites could pose a significant danger to low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
On Jan. 30, Michael Thompson, a respected space tracker, noted that the space surveillance/inspection bird, Cosmos 2542, launched on Nov. 25, had synchronized its orbit with USA 245–launched in 2013 and one of four multi-billion dollar, classified Lockheed Martin [LMT] KH-11 electro-optical spy satellites under the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) Keyhole/CRYSTAL program.
On July 22, U.S. Space Command said that Cosmos 2543 had “injected a new object into orbit” as part of an ASAT capability “inconsistent with the system’s stated mission as an inspector satellite.”
At the Defence Space 2020 virtual forum on Nov. 17, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, the head of the RAF, said that the actions by Cosmos 2542 and 2543 “threaten the peaceful use of space directly and they also risk creating debris that could pose an indirect threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends.”
“The increased debris density may contribute to reaching a threshold in low earth orbit that could start a chain reaction of follow-on collisions – the Kessler effect, leaving parts of space completely unusable,” he said.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond addressed the Cosmos 2543 test in July during his speech to the Defence Space 2020 forum on Nov. 17.
“Just last summer, via a shared sensor network and C2 [command and control] capabilities, we were able to detect, characterize, and attribute a nefarious on-orbit testing of a Russian on-orbit weapon system specifically designed to kinetically kill our space vehicles,” he said. “The U.S. and U.K.’s unified strategic response to their irresponsible actions increases global awareness of Russia’s malign behavior and lets them know we are always watching. It’s clear that collaboration and cooperation with our allies is where we gain competitive advantage.”
In addition to Cosmos 2542 and 2543, Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile on April 15, per U.S. Space Command. That DA-ASAT was likely the Nudol, a ballistic missile designed to intercept satellites in LEO, according to Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation and a former Air Force officer who specialized in space situational awareness.
“We have seen several examples of Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite testing; firing a rocket from Earth to orbit, with the aim of destroying satellites,” Wigston said on Nov. 17. “In 2007 China destroyed a weather satellite, creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris greater than 10cms in one single event. When you consider that the number of objects that size or greater is approximately 22,000 – that one irresponsible action represents a significant portion of the total debris in orbit today. When deterrence has failed and political discourse has run its course, a future conflict may not start in space, but I am in no doubt it will transition very quickly to space, and it may even be won or lost in space.”