Russia’s Kosmos-2491 military satellite may has disintegrated in space, either by accident or after deliberately self-destructing, Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell believes.
Earlier, the US Air Force’s Project Space Track reported that ten fragments thought to be the remnants of the Kosmos-2491 military satellite, assigned the numbers 44912-44913 and 44987-44994, were observed orbiting at altitudes between 1,329 to 1,699 km.
“At about 1321 UTC on 2019 Dec 23, the satellite made a 1.5m/s orbit change and 10 debris objects have now been catalogued. The inference is that Kosmos-2491 may have disintegrated, either through deliberate destruction, accidental battery or prop event, or through an accidental debris collision. I lean to accident since it is my guess the sat has been dead for several years, but it’s not certain,” McDowell wrote on his Twitter page.
Bart Hendrickx deduced that Kosmos-2491 was part of the Nivelir project from TsNII Khimii i Mekhaniki. Two later payloads, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504, appear to have been in the same series.— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) 12 января 2020 г.
The inference is that Kosmos-2491 may have disintegrated, either through deliberate destruction, accidental battery or prop event, or through an accidental debris collision. I lean to accident since it is my guess the sat has been dead for several years, but it's not certain.— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) 12 января 2020 г.
McDowell recalled that the satellite was launched in December 2013, along with three other military communications satellites.
Kosmos-2491 was believed to have been part of the ‘Nivelir’ project, thought to be capable of manouevring and secretly inspecting other satellites while in orbit. Janes has even speculated that Nivelir was part of a Russian attempt to improve its anti-satellite warfare capabilities.
US observers believe Russia has launched several more satellites from the Nivelir series, including the Kosmos-2499, Kosmos-2504 and Kosmos-2519. However, McDowell noted that unlike some of the latter, “Kosmos-2491 did not change its orbit,” and appeared to have ended its mission in 2014, continuing to float in the same orbit before December’s sudden change in trajectory.
US Concerned by Russian Space Capabilities
Last year, the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center issued a report indicating that Russia and China were working on advanced space-based technologies aimed at “challenging US superiority” in the potential war-fighting domain. The US Air Force-affiliated think tank cited Russian and Chinese developments in missile technology, as well as directed-energy radio frequency and laser weaponry, which it said could pose a threat to US efforts in this area.