The U.S. government says Russia tested a space weapon earlier this month.
Russia says the device, launched July 15, is not a weapon but rather a satellite designed to inspect other satellites. But, the U.S. Space Command (USCC) said in a statement that the Russians launched an anti-satellite weapon. Whatever the device is, Russia launched it from another satellite, known as Cosmos 2543 — a satellite that was launched Nov. 25, 2019. It entered a new orbit, closely approaching (but not destroying) a third Russian satellite.
That behavior, USCC said, is "inconsistent with the system's stated mission."
The USCC included a statement from the U.S. State Department criticizing the move, suggesting Russia was "hypocritical" for testing the weapon while calling publicly for outer space arms control.
Union of Concerned Scientists researcher Laura Grego — an expert on orbital weapons and critic of space militarization — has raised public concerns about both U.S. and Russian moves to militarize space. And, at different points in recent years, Russia, China and the U.S. have each expressed worries about the other countries' orbital military capabilities and threats to satellites.
In December 2019, the U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump established the Space Force, a branch of the military dedicated to operations in space. The U.S. military had already conducted activities in space, including an anti-satellite weapon test that destroyed a malfunctioning U.S. orbiter in 2008. India and China have also tested anti-satellite weapons. However, the Russian device may be unique in that it launched from another satellite as opposed to from the Earth's surface.
"Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counterspace program — both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry," said Christopher Ford, the acting U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security.
(Ford was appointed by President Donald Trump but has not been confirmed by the Senate.)
This latest Russian test, according to USCC, involved the same Russian satellite system that followed a U.S. spy satellite around for a while in February. Russia also tested an anti-satellite missile in April.
Originally published on Live Science.