Mysterious Russian satellite breaks up, creates cloud of space debris

The disintegration of Kosmos 2499 created at least 85 trackable pieces of orbital debris.
Chris Young
An illustration of space debris around Earth
An illustration of space debris around Earth


A mysterious Russian satellite broke apart in early January, creating a cloud of debris that could orbit Earth for a hundred years or more.

The Kosmos 2499 spacecraft fell apart on January 3, according to a social media post from the U.S. Space Force, which tracks orbital debris.

It brings Kosmos 2499's mystery operations to a close while adding more shrapnel to the increasingly unsustainable amount of space debris orbiting our planet.

The mystery of Kosmos 2499

The U.S. Space Force explained on Twitter on Monday, February 8, that the disintegration of Kosmos 2499 created at least 85 trackable debris pieces. Those pieces of debris are orbiting at an altitude of 726 miles (1,169 kilometers), meaning it could take more than a century for atmospheric drag to bring them back down to Earth.

Kosmos 2499's disintegration is a mystery, as was its mission, a report from points out. The satellite launched aboard a Russian Rockot vehicle in May 2014, though it wasn't officially included in the launch manifest. U.S. satellite trackers initially cataloged the satellite as a piece of debris, but then they saw the object was making maneuvers. Within a few months, it had been reclassified and named Kosmos 2499.

The U.S. military reportedly kept track of Kosmos 2499 over the ensuing months and found that it maneuvered and came within 0.33 miles (0.53 km) of the Rockot's upper stage weeks after launch. This led to speculation that Kosmos 2499 might be testing technology allowing a spacecraft to catch and deorbit other satellites.

Kosmos 2499 adds to the growing space debris problem

Ground observations later suggested that Kosmos 2499 was less than 1 foot (0.3 meters) wide, and observations showed it made more maneuvers over the following years. Whatever its true purpose, however, the mysterious satellite has added to the growing space debris problem.

The International Space Station has already had to make several maneuvers to avoid Russian space debris caused by a satellite weapon test in 2021. U.S. private space firm SpaceX has also garnered criticism for the amount of Starlink internet satellites it sends to orbit, causing a group of astronomers to organize against their launch practices.

The European Space Agency says on its website that roughly 36,500 pieces of space junk measuring 4 inches (10 centimeters) are orbiting our planet. These pieces of shrapnel travel at the speed of bullets. In a worst-case scenario, they could cause a cascading effect known as Kessler Syndrome, which would see debris break up a large piece of space machinery to create even more debris. This, in turn, would create an unmanageable amount of space debris that could adversely affect space exploration as well as astronomy for many years.

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