HOUSTON — On the snowy steppes near Orenburg, southeast of the Ural Mountains in Siberia, teams of military search and rescue experts have spent the last month scanning the ground with metal detectors and probing the snow drifts for suspicious metal objects.
Their quest: Russia's most advanced spy satellite, which hasn't been seen since it came down to Earth on Jan. 9.
Midwinter cold, short periods of daylight, and blowing snow slowed the teams at every step, and now they appear to have given up.
No official announcement of the loss has been made. Observers speculate that's because Moscow is less worried about not finding the missing spy cameras and exposed film than about the potential catastrophe if agents of some other nation find and exploit the contents of the capsule.
But the greatest impact could be on arms control. Moscow uses imagery from such vehicles as a key ingredient in checking up on U.S. strategic weapons limited under various arms-control treaties. Such satellites, both American and Russian, are usually referred to in such treaties with the euphemism of “national technical means of verification."
The less a nation can verify arms control treaties, through satellites and other means, the less willing it may be to abide by them. And the less it can use spy satellites to verify the absence of aggressive developments and deployments in other countries, the more insecure it may feel.
The satellite loss "will certainly leave them wondering about open issues,” said Charles Vick, a Washington-based analyst for Global Security and an expert on the Russian space program.
"It will require them to rely on alternate sources and methods not always as reliable as imagery, until they can make up for the intelligence losses," he said.
Decline of Russia's satellite program
When the satellite in question launched last Sept. 24, it was identified publicly as "Kosmos-2410." Informed sources in the Russian news media, however, particularly at the independent newspaper Kommersant, quickly identified the satellite as a Kobalt-class photo reconnaissance vehicle.
Developed in the 1980s to replace earlier generations of Russian spy satellites, Kobalts had better cameras, longer lifetimes in space and an entirely new structural design. During flights that lasted for months, they would stash exposed spy film into small canisters and fire them back to Earth one after the other. At the end of a mission, the three-ton main vehicle –- a tapered cylinder that bears an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. Gemini spacecraft -– returned to Earth, carrying more film and allowing the expensive lens and cameras to be reused.
During the big budget Soviet days, Kobalt satellites were launched six to eight times a year, spending months in orbit. Often there were overlapping missions, which made it harder for ground targets to schedule their activities so as to avoid the eyes in the sky.
In the wake of the Soviet breakup and Russia's subsequent financial problems, military space funding dried up. The factory is in Kuybyshev (renamed Samara) on the Volga River nearly went bankrupt. Launchings dropped to a fraction of previous rates.
The result: Russian spy satellites all but vanished from the skies. Where once several satellites orbited Earth simultaneously, by the late 1990s there were long periods -- sometimes more than a year -- between the times when a single spacecraft would orbit, alone for a few months.
Mission cut short
The official mission of “Kosmos-2410” was “to hold flight and design trials of a new-generation satellite”, with the purpose “to develop and confirm design solutions forming the basis for a wide range of military space vehicles that will perform various functions for Russia's orbital group up to the year 2015.” In other words, it represented a new-model space spy.
But Ivan Safranov, aerospace writer at the Moscow daily Kommersant, learned another story from his contacts in the space industry. “The vehicle that was sent into orbit is only a modernized version of the old Kobalt-series satellite,” he wrote a few days after its launch.
According to Safranov’s article, the Kobalts had to be modernized because the planned replacement vehicle –- codename ‘Zircon’ -– was too expensive. The old Kobalts themselves were so expensive that only one was launched per year. One of the main goals of the modernized Kobalt, Safranov wrote, was an increased lifetime from two to six months.
Both the official account and Safranov’s version agreed that the new satellite would be in space for a very long time. So observers in Russia and the West were shocked to read, on Jan. 12, that the satellite had already returned to Earth. The official statements from the Russian defense ministry, which operates the satellite, said merely that the satellite had ended its mission “after flight tests were carried out.”
The fact that the satellite had in fact come down was later confirmed by U.S. satellite watcher Jonathan McDowell. Writing in his online journal "Space Report," McDowell stated that the mission ended on Jan. 9, after “about only half its expected lifetime."
The satellite fired its braking rockets at about 2 AM EST. and "is presumed to have landed" shortly thereafter, or near noon in that part of Russia, McDowell wrote.
Weather reports from the region put the visibility then at 3 miles, wind speed at 11 mph from the southwest with gusts to 26 mph, and local temperature just above freezing. The overcast conditions were by no means unusually difficult for spacecraft recovery operations, but something apparently went badly wrong.
Meanwhile, Russian officials denied that the mission had been ended prematurely. Russian Space Forces spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov told an Interfax reporter that the satellite had fulfilled its program of flight tests, and a “controlled descent” was carried out “according to schedule.”
"The 107 days planned by the test program is a perfectly adequate period of time for this class of satellite," the vice president of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, Ivan Meshcheryakov, told the TASS news agency.
So where is it?
Amateur satellite trackers were able to determine that the return to Earth had indeed been deliberate. Kosmos-2410 had been in a stable orbit, well above the atmosphere. In order to drop out of orbit suddenly, it had to have fired a braking rocket. But what happened next –- controlled burn-up or intact-touchdown –- remained unknown.
Then, on Jan. 21, Kommersant’s Safronov revealed another space scoop: the satellite was supposed to have landed safely, but now it couldn’t be found. A special commission had already been formed to investigate the loss, he reported.
Safranov also reported that "one of the reasons for the satellite’s early landing could have been the malfunction of its flight control system," noting that the Kobalt was observed by U.S. space radar "making uncharacteristic maneuvers.” Although this control problem was supposedly overcome, a decision was made to cut short the mission.
“However, before the satellite came off the orbit in order to land at the base in the Orenburg steppe, two large fragments detached from it,” Safranov wrote. This unusual event was also observed on radar by the Americans, he said. He noted also that the satellite had already jettisoned two small film canisters that had come back safely in the previous few months.
As with all Russian spy satellites, he explained, Kosmos-2410 was equipped with explosive charges to destroy it if it threatened to come down outside of Russia. But this didn’t happen, so the presumption was that it was somewhere within Russia, perhaps far from the search area. Alternate theories include a failure of the parachute system that led to a high-speed impact that buried the vehicle, or failure of the heat shield that led to near-total disintegration.
Safranov’s report was confirmed by the Novosti press agency, whose military reporters have their own trusted sources within the Russian Ministry of Defense. But no other Russian news agency mentioned the story, aside from local papers in the recovery zone. There, the Orenburg daily Orenburzhye described how the search areas had been widened to include Abdulinsk, Bashkiriya, and Samara provinces, but without success.
Novosti’s source discounted the theory that the spacecraft had burned up. "The device's descent took place on a controlled basis,” he pointed out, “which to be sure made it possible to define the assumed landing area more or less precisely." Surviving fragments would have been found.
"On occasion,” Novosti’s expert continued, “it has taken several days even to find cosmonauts who have landed on Earth, although incomparably more efforts and resources are then involved in the search operation."
And Safranov pointed out that a test landing of a new recovery system five years ago in the same region at the same time of year wasn’t located for months -– and by then, local thieves had carted the main space vehicle away for its scrap metal.