Secretly-Launched Russian Satellite with Unknown Purpose Breaking Up in Orbit, US Says

Cosmos 2499 was speculated to be a spy satellite, or an experimental weapon test, and now it's disintegrating.
Mysterious Russian Satellite with Unknown Purpose Breaking Up in Orbit, US Says
Soyuz spacecraft preparing for launch in 2021. Image: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / Contributor via Getty Images

A mysterious Russian satellite of unknown purpose is breaking up in low-Earth orbit, US officials confirmed this week. 

Back in 2013 and 2014, Russia launched several satellites into space. One of these was an object that space watchers designated as Cosmos 2499. No one knows exactly what Cosmos 2499 is, but it was launched along with communication satellites. It wasn’t on the launch manifest and was thought to be debris until it started maneuvering in orbit. Speculation at the time proposed that it was possibly a spy satellite, or an experimental anti-satellite weapon. 


On Monday, the 18th Space Defense Squadron (SDS), a part of the U.S. Space Force, confirmed that Cosmos 2499 broke apart on January 4 into 85 chunks of debris almost 700 miles above the Earth.

America’s Guardians now are tracking the dozens of debris chunks hurtling through space. The debris will live in the atmosphere for years to come. 

Cosmos 2499 and similar objects have fascinated sky-watchers for years. Journalist Anatoly Zak has tracked the object’s strange movements in depth on his website Russianspaceweb, where he catalogs Moscow’s extraterrestrial ambitions

What was Cosmos 2499 up to, and why did it break up? No one knows. According to Zak and other observers, Cosmos 2499 maneuvered unusually after it was launched, chasing its own rocket stage, indicating it was being controlled or following some kind of programming. On November 25, 2014, it broadcast Morse code that was picked up by amateur radio enthusiasts. According to Zak, Oleg Ostapenko—then head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos—explained that Cosmos 2499 was not a “killer satellite” during a 2014 press conference, and that it was designed for unspecified research.

Ostapenko also said that the satellite had completed its mission, but it continued to maneuver for several years after. According to Zak, Cosmos 2499 last maneuvered in 2017.

Now, the satellite is just debris floating above the Earth and tracked by America’s Space Force.

Russia, China, and the U.S. are all making a hard push into space. Along with the newly commissioned Space Force, all branches of the U.S. military are looking to the skies as part of their strategy for fighting wars of the future. The Pentagon wants to use rockets to ship supplies through low earth orbit on demand. China has said it wants to put astronauts on Mars and the Moon.