Kosmos 2499: Mysterious Russian military satellite shattered in orbit

When Kosmos 2499 was launched eight years ago, its secrecy and precise maneuvers fueled speculation. Now it is broken into many pieces.

The mysterious Russian military satellite Kosmos 2499 has broken up in Earth orbit. A unit of the US Space Force observed this and has now made it public. The satellite broke into at least 85 pieces on January 4th, but there are probably many more. Because the debris hurtles around the earth at an altitude of more than 1100 km, it is likely to remain there for more than a century before falling to earth. In doing so, they contribute to the growing problem of space debris. So far there has been no comment from Russia.

Launched in May 2014 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia, Kosmos-2499 has garnered a lot of attention since then. Because its flight on the rocket was not declared, it was initially mistaken for space debris. But suddenly the military satellite carried out “amazingly precise manoeuvres”, as reported by Spiegel Online at the time. There was then extensive speculation about the purpose of the satellite: It is possible that he tried peaceful techniques, for example to refuel or repair other satellites, but the assumptions went in a different direction. As a “satellite killer,” Kosmos 2499 could test how other satellites could be hunted down and disabled.

From Russia itself it was said that Kosmos 2499 and the similar predecessor Kosmos 2491 had been developed together with the Russian Academy of Sciences for peaceful purposes, the US magazine Space quotes an expert as saying. The mission was long overdue. Nevertheless, the satellite remained active and continued to carry out maneuvers years after it was launched. After the breakup at the turn of the year, this is now over, but the debris is contributing to the increasingly dangerous problem of space debris.

Not only are more and more functioning satellites racing around the earth in orbit, but also a growing number of remnants from past collisions and weapons tests, as well as rocket parts and discarded satellites. They are traveling at immense speeds and a single collision could have catastrophic consequences for the whole of space travel. They could destroy more and more satellites in a chain reaction and thus empty entire orbital planes, so to speak. Space agencies, business and research institutions have recognized the problem and are increasingly looking for possible solutions and countermeasures.

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