The 18th Space Defense Squadron tweeted on Tuesday that the Russian satellite Cosmos 2499 blew up on 4 January at an altitude of about 1170km, adding that the space force division is tracking 85 associated pieces of the debris.
US satellite trackers had reportedly catalogued the Russian satellite as a piece of debris initially after it was launched in 2014 but later labelled it as the payload Cosmos 2499.
Earlier news reports had speculated based on the satellite’s strange maneuvers that it may have been experimental anti-satellite technology, or a maintenance vehicle, or a collector of space debris.
“Whatever it is, looks experimental,” Patricia Lewis, research director at think-tank Chatham House and an expert in space security, had told the Financial Times in 2014.
The US military was then rechecking the orbital parameters of the “mysterious satellite” about “three or four times a day!” journalist Anatoly Zak noted in the website RussianSpaceWeb.com.
#18SDS has confirmed the breakup of COSMOS 2499 (#39765, 2014-028E) - occurred Jan 4, 2023 at appx 0357 UTC. Tracking 85 associated pieces at est 1169 km altitude - analysis ongoing. #spacedebris #space @SpaceTrackOrg @US_SpaceCom @ussfspoc
— 18th Space Defense Squadron (@18thSDS) February 7, 2023
This is also the second time the Kosmos-2499 satellite has broken up after a first such instance in October 2021.
Break up of the satellite into fragments is likely to leave debris persisting in orbit for many years, experts say.
The European Space Agency has warned that there are over 36,500 pieces of observable debris floating around Earth with at least another 100 million smaller as space junk littering the region.
Space debris floating around Earth has become a growing problem in recent times.
The US Pentagon said last year that the problem is so bad that the existing space junk will still be “formidable” even if international guidelines were set and made legally binding.
“The probability of collision between massive derelict objects is rising and almost certainly will continue to rise until at least 2030 as a result of fragmentation events such as collisions or battery explosions, [anti-satellite weapon] testing, and a rapidly increasing number of space launches worldwide”, the Defense Intelligence Agency noted.
Last year, the International Space Station had to conduct an avoidance maneuver to avoid a piece of space debris from Russia’s missile tests.
More than 1,600 pieces of debris were identified from the Russian test, according to US vice president Kamala Harris, who said such debris presents safety risks to astronauts, satellites, and the country’s “growing commercial presence” in space.