THAT STRANGE NEW RUSSIAN SATELLITE…August 16, 2018
Now, this was was sent to me by so many people it would be impossible to thank you all by initials, so a "general thank you" will have to do. This is one of "those stories" that really gets my trademark high octane speculationTM going. The Russians, apparently (and we'll get back to that "apparently" part of the story in a moment), have put up a satellite, and it's doing strange things, like, (apparently, and again, we'll get back to that "apparently" in a moment) not staying in one orbit:
I want to focus on the third of these articles, the remarks of Yleem D. S. Poblete on August 14, 2018, at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and specifically, on these passages:
Mr. President, in October of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object they claimed was a “space apparatus inspector.” But its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared “space apparatus inspector.” We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it. But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development – particularly, when considered in concert with statements by Russia’s Space Force Commander who highlighted that “assimilate[ing] new prototypes of weapons [into] Space Forces’ military units” is a “main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops.”
Now I can tell you that our Russian colleagues will deny that its systems are meant to be hostile. The Russian Ministry of Defense has put out a press release stating these are simply inspector satellites.
So the question before this body is: how do we verify what countries say their spacecraft are doing? What would be enough information to prove what the purpose of an object is? We have pointed out Russian satellite behavior that is inconsistent with what Russia claims it is – a so-called inspector satellite not acting in a manner consistent with a satellite designed to conduct safe and responsible inspection operations.
But it is difficult to determine an object’s true purpose simply by observing it on orbit – unlike inspection for a traditional arms control agreement. Based on the drafting of the treaty language by Russia, there is nothing in the proposed PPWT that would prohibit this sort of activity or the developing, testing, or stockpiling of anti-satellite weapons capabilities, so long as it doesn’t damage another object in space.
The only certainty we have is that this system has been “placed in orbit.” The rest of its demonstrated behavior is unexpected and unclear to us. (Emphasis added)
There's so much uncertainty and ambiguity in these statements that it is difficult to parse these words and indulge in our daily high octane speculation. But there are a few general logical possibilities that immediately emerge:
1) The satellite is not Russian at all, and somebody wishes to make it appear that it is: I suspect we may discount this, since the context of Ms. Poblete's remarks seem to indicate that in this respect, at least, the U.S. government is fairly certain of its origins;
2) The object is Russian, but not necessarily a satellite in the conventional sense: Much of the context of Ms. Poblete's remarks, and the speculations entertained by the other two articles, focus on the possibility that the object is some sort of weapons platform, i.e., a conventional satellite launched into orbit, carrying weapons. But that it may not be a satellite in the conventional sense is evident from the statements that its "demonstrated behavior is unexpected and unclear to us," and this marvelous and glittering generality provokes all sorts of questions: exactly what demonstrated behavior is being referred to? My first guess would be that the object is maneuvering and changing orbits dramatically, from both shape, orbit type, and altitude, and that it has been doing so fairly consistently since its launch. It's that "consistency" factor which may have them worried, for there are satellites that have a limited ability to do this and they've been around for a while, but that capability is limited by the amount of fuel such maneuvering consumes; the more maneuvers, the more fuel is consumed, and the less room and ability to maneuver in the future there is. Consistent and prolonged maneuvering would indicate either a nuclear fuel, or some other more exotic means of propulsion. Nuclear propulsion would be relatively easy for the USA (or anyone else with "stuff" up there, the U.K., France, India, Germany, Japan... all the "usual suspects") to detect.
There is yet another possibility as well: what if this object is not a satellite, but a returnable orbital platform much like the US Air Force's unmanned "space shuttle-drone," which can be launched conventionally, obtain orbit, change orbits, and then land once again? If the USA can do it (and it has), then it's a sure bet that Russia can, and not only that it can, but that it would do so if for no other reason than to send the message "We've got it too."
But again, while that may elicit some concern from the US government, it's unlikely that it would have summoned the degree of concern that seems to be implied here. After all, if the last possibility were the case, then it simply means the Russians have achieved "parity."
Something about this new "Sputnik" has the spooks spooked, and my best guess at the present is precisely that it may be performing maneuvers of a complex, and "fuel consuming" nature, such that it may be indicative of a very different type of propulsion system and one that perhaps may not be nuclear.
If so, then as the expression has it, the defecation may have just hit the rotary oscillating motor with medium-driving blades, and may explain why there's been so much hype lately about "space forces" both from Washington and from Moscow.
See you on the flip side...