Russian Soyuz launch: speculations stir US over nuke-space weapon

Emerging reports on Wednesday suggest that U.S. intelligence officials suspect Russia plans to place a nuclear weapon in outer space. This news follows a public plea from the House Intelligence Committee Chair for the White House to disclose information about a “destabilizing foreign military capability”, terming it a significant concern for national safety. 

The White House
Photo credit: Getty Images

Despite efforts from the White House and other agencies to limit the spread of information, news continued to trickle out following Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio’s revealing tweet. Sources at ABC News suggested the weapon could potentially be used to target satellites rather than terrestrial targets. 

“Today’s public discussion from Congressman Turner is a little surprising, given that we have a planned meeting with defense and intelligence experts scheduled for tomorrow,” shared Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, with the media. 

US Senate
Photo credit: Getty Images

“Issue being closely monitored”

Sullivan disclosed the meeting’s expected attendees: key political figures, known as the Gang of Eight. These are the leaders of the four parties in Congress, as well as the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Showing a united front, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman, Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Florida, stated their committee has been closely monitoring the issue. 

They advised a cautious approach to protect crucial sources or methodologies and are in discussions with the administration to formulate an appropriate response. News of this development comes five days after the launch of Russia’s Soyuz-2-1v rocket, which carried a confidential military payload. Reports regarding Russia’s growing space aggression, including rogue satellites and kinetic weaponry, have been on the U.S. radar for some time. 

Russian satellite Kosmos-2570 detached two military objects - US
Photo credit: Russian Space Web

Game changer?

Why would a nuclear weapon in space be a game-changer? The Starfish Prime test carried out by the U.S. in 1962 can give us some insight. This nuclear test triggered a geomagnetic storm in space, damaging satellites. The following year, nations worldwide, including the U.S., signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting such tests. In recent years, the U.S. military has been exploring ways to protect its crucial satellites from the fallout of a nuclear detonation in space, with radio waves touted as a potential solution. 

Given the growing number of commercial satellites now in orbit, the impact of a nuclear weapon detonation would be hugely multiplied compared to the 1960s. The Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted this potential threat in its Space Threat Assessment last year. The report emphasized how the significant, indiscriminate effects of a nuclear explosion in space could disrupt both the immediate and long-term functionality of satellites.

Russian MoD officially

In a recent bulletin from Russia’s Defense Ministry, we learned that a Soyuz-2-1v rocket blasted off into the skies on February 9, 2024, at precisely 10:03 Moscow Time. It took off from Plesetsk, carrying a payload intended for the Ministry of Defense. In a twist of fate, this launch coincided exactly with the previous takeoff of the same Soyuz-2-1v rocket on December 27, 2023. Isn’t that uncanny? 

According to the customary news releases disseminated by the state-regulated media, the payload has reportedly been placed successfully in its scheduled orbit and is now under the operational control of the ground forces of the Russian Air and Space Forces, also known as VKS. Connectivity with the ground base remains stable, and all systems of the spacecraft are running smoothly, as reported by the military. To top it all off, Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, has added a new member to their celestial family – say hello to Kosmos-2575. 

Russian Soyuz launch: speculations stir US over nuke-space weapon
Photo credit: Russian MoD

Strange coincidences

Before the launch, notifications were given to air and sea traffic by Russian authorities. From these notifications, we inferred that the rocket climbed along the standard path to accomplish an orbit at around a 97-degree inclination toward the Equator. 

As the rocket enthusiasts among us might have predicted, the new satellite’s orbit bears a striking resemblance to the one that was launched on December 27, 2023. Could it simply be following in its predecessor’s contrail?

What is Kosmos-2575?

Russian satellite Kosmos-2570 detached two military objects - US
Photo credit: Russian MoD

Currently, details about the Cosmos-2575 cargo remain undisclosed. The cargo is simply referred to as a “classified satellite for the Ministry of Defense of Russia.” However, speculations from various sources suggest that it could potentially be a BARS-M or an EO-MKA5 optical reconnaissance satellite. 

The BARS-M, also known as EO-MKA5, is an optical reconnaissance satellite designed and launched by Russia. It’s part of the country’s space-based optical surveillance system, used to gather high-resolution imagery of the Earth’s surface. 

The primary objective of the BARS-M satellite is to provide detailed reconnaissance data for the Russian military. However, the data collected by the satellite can also serve various civilian applications, such as environmental monitoring, disaster response, and mapping. 

The BARS-M satellite is equipped with advanced optical sensors that can capture images under various light conditions, including during the night or in cloudy weather. These sensors are capable of capturing images with a resolution of up to 1 meter, allowing for a detailed analysis of the Earth’s surface. 

The satellite operates in a sun-synchronous orbit, meaning it passes over the same part of the Earth at the same local solar time each day. This allows for consistent lighting conditions for the images it captures, making it easier to compare images taken at different times. 

A part of larger Russian ‘spy’ satellites

The BARS-M satellite is part of a larger network of Russian reconnaissance satellites. By working together, these satellites can provide near-constant coverage of the Earth’s surface, ensuring that no significant events or changes go unnoticed. 

The Soyuz-2.1А rocket was brought to launch for the first flight with people
Photo credit: Roskosmos

Despite its military origins, the data collected by the BARS-M satellite has significant potential for civilian use. For example, the high-resolution images it captures could be utilized to monitor environmental changes, track the progress of natural disasters, or assist in urban planning and development.

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