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Even though the Russians officially listed four objects launched during its November 30 launch, three military satellites and the rocket’s upper stage, the U.S. military says it has identified a fifth object.
The Rokot/Briz-KM launch vehicle blasted off from Pad 3 at Site 133 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Western Russia at just before 5:30 PM local time on Nov. 30, 2018, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com. At approximately 7:12 PM, the three Rodnik communications satellites had deployed into their assigned orbits. Russia has named the trio of satellites Kosmos-2530, Kosmos-2531, and Kosmos-2532.
This would all be rather banal had the CSpoC, as well as the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), not recorded the launch slightly differently. Information on Space-Track.org, a U.S. government website that publicly releases data on space launches from the CSpoC and NORAD, listed Objects A through E as resulting from the launch from Plesetsk. This would include the three satellites and the upper stage, but the fifth object is unexplained.
It is possible that the upper stage simply fragmented into multiple pieces that were large enough for the U.S. military to track independently. Three of the objects – A through C – have essentially same perigee, the point in their orbit at which they are nearest to the earth. The other two objects – D and E – share a different general perigee.
The article speculates that this extra unidentified object might be part of Russia’s military program to develop tiny “inspector satellites” that can get close to other satellites and observe them, for both engineering and reconnaissance reasons. If so, this would be a significant violation by the Russians of the Outer Space Treaty, which requires them to list every object they launch. It would also be something they have not done before, which is why I am doubtful about this speculation. Though they are skilled at keeping their military space work secret, they have also obeyed this treaty scrupulously since the day they signed it. If they have decided they can get away with launching objects without listing them officially, then that means the treaty is showing its first signs of collapse, something I believe will happen more and more in the coming years as nations and private companies find themselves increasingly restrained by the unrealistic terms of the treaty.
Posted from Buffalo, New York. I stay here tonight, and go on to Israel tomorrow evening, which means I will be posting tomorrow during the day, and will be able to see the SpaceX launch and OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu.