A secret Russian satellite has disintegrated in orbit, creating a cloud of debris that could last for a century

illustration shows satellite dropping bits of metal debris high above the earth

An illustration of a satellite falling apart above the Earth.ESA/ID&Sense/ONiRiXEL, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

A mysterious Russian satellite with a dark mission has broken up in Earth’s orbit, sending a dangerous cloud of debris speeding around the planet and threatening other satellites, US Space Force announced.

The 18th Space Defense Squadron said on Twitter On Monday, it confirmed that a satellite called Kosmos 2499 had broken into 85 pieces.

Past collisions and satellite break-ups have resulted in much larger and more dangerous debris fields than this one.

But the pieces of Kosmos 2499 orbit at an altitude of about 745 miles — so high that they’ll likely be there for a century or more before Earth’s atmosphere drags them down and burns them up, according to NASA.

Kosmos 2499 is one of three satellites secretly launched by Russia between 2013 and 2015. The beginning is even more mysterious than the end.

NASA and the US Department of Defense did not immediately respond to Insider’s requests for comment.

The satellite was secretly launched and made “suspicious” maneuvers in orbit

rocket spews orange flame takes off in the Arctic

A Russian “Rokot” rocket takes off from a launch pad near the city of Plesetsk in Arctic Russia.Reuters

On Christmas Day 2013, Russia launched a small Rokot rocket into the sky over Plesetsk, which launched three military communications satellites into orbit.

It seemed like a standard launch, until space trackers noticed the Rokot had released a fourth object into orbit, according to Anatoly Zak, an English-language reporter who covers the Russian space program and runs Russianspaceweb.com.

A few months later, Russia admitted to the United Nations that it had launched a fourth satellite, which became known as Kosmos 2491. Its purpose was unclear.

Russia launched another secret satellite in May 2014, and it soon began maneuvering itself into orbit, sinking down and rising higher and higher until it brought itself “suspiciously close” to the rocket stage that would put it in into orbit, Zak said. The US military has designated the object Kosmos 2499.

For nearly half a year, this mysterious satellite followed its rocket stage and repeatedly maneuvered close to it. It then sent telemetry data back to Earth in Morse code, according to Zak.

The bizarre behavior led to speculation that Russia was testing technology to track or destroy other satellites, according to Space.com.

Then-head of Roscosmos, Oleg Ostapenko, assured the world at a press conference in December 2014 that Kosmos 2491 and Kosmos 2499 were not “killer satellites,” Zak reported. Ostapenko said the satellites had peaceful, educational purposes and that “they completed their mission”. Zak said the Roscosmos chief never specified what that mission was.

A similar Rokot launch sent a third unregistered satellite into orbit the following year.

The first secret satellite, Kosmos 2491, broke up in 2019. Cosmos 2499 just met the same fate.

The satellite may have exploded instead of crashing

The cause of the satellite’s breakup is not yet clear.

Brian Weeden, a space debris expert at the Secure World Foundation, told ArsTechnica that he doesn’t think a collision was the cause since two of the secret satellites went out this way.

“This suggests to me that these events may be the result of a design flaw in the fuel tanks or other systems rupturing after several years in space, rather than something like a collision with a piece of debris,” Weeden told ArsTechnica.

That’s consistent with a preliminary analysis by LeoLabs, a company that tracks objects in Earth’s orbit. Company tweeted that the early data “point to a low-intensity explosion,” likely coming from the satellite’s propulsion system.

LeoLabs said its models had “moderate confidence” in this finding.

“As more of the fragments are cataloged and included in the analysis, we will be able to provide a more definitive cause of the event,” the company wrote, adding that “understanding why events like this happen the key is to prevent them in the future.”

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