Russian space experts are wondering whether the United States used an anti-satellite weapon last month to kill a small Russian research satellite, the Novosti news agency reported Wednesday.
The claim that the Pentagon intentionally crippled the satellite brought an almost immediate denial from U.S. military officials.
"There's no way this is a credible story," U.S. Navy Capt. James Graybeal, spokesman for the U.S. Strategic Command, told MSNBC.com. "We've checked with everybody, we have talked to everyone."
The latest flap comes less than two months after China's surprising launch of a missile that hit one of its own retired satellites, blasting the spacecraft into thousands of shards of space junk and sparking an international outcry over anti-satellite weaponry. Last month's satellite failure did not involve an actual breakup of the spacecraft, according to the Novosti report. Nevertheless, Wednesday's claims revive an issue that has been a sore point between Washington and Moscow in the past.
The satellite in question is a small spacecraft built and launched for Moscow State University and St. Petersburg's Mozhaisky Space Military Academy in St. Petersburg to monitor space radiation. The probe, nicknamed Universitetsky or Tatiana, was launched as a piggyback payload along with a military satellite in January 2005 from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome, north of Moscow.
A question of timing
The Russian space experts' speculation was based on the timing of the satellite's failure: They claimed that the satellite stopped functioning on March 7 and said the United States was conducting a military experiment at about the same time.
"According to some Russian experts, chances are high that the satellite fell victim to U.S. experiments in ray influence on spacecraft," Novosti reported.
In the late 1990s, the Pentagon performed some aiming tests of a powerful ground-based laser in New Mexico that successfully illuminated a U.S. spacecraft. The Soviet Union performed similar aiming experiments in the 1980s. However, the Pentagon has discontinued such laser tests.
Novosti quoted an unnamed source in the Russian rocket industry as saying that the satellite "could have been lost as a result of influence of some Earth-based technical means."
"One of such experiments, according to official information, was held in the U.S. shortly before our satellite stopped sending signals," the source was quoted as saying, without elaboration.
The source described how Universitetsky-Tatyana stopped sending signals suddenly: "Stable communication with the satellite was maintained until it left the sector of Russian ground-based assets' radio visibility,” Novosti quoted the source as saying. “When it made a spin and returned to our zone about an hour later, its onboard equipment was already dead."
While it might be possible that this was caused by impact with a piece of space junk, the source didn’t think it likely. Furthermore, a collision should have produced more debris, and apparently none was tracked.
Debate over missile testing
Novosti talked with a second space expert who had a different explanation for the satellite’s loss, but still blamed U.S. activity. “The sudden failure of the satellite could be connected with the missile launch from the U.S. territory on March 7,” the agency quoted him as saying.
Graybeal said the U.S. Strategic Command, which absorbed the U.S. Space Command five years ago, had no record of any launch on March 7.
The only recorded test launch in that time frame was an exercise involving a short-range target missile, fired from an aircraft over the Pacific Ocean toward missile defense radars in the western United States. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said that test, which concluded March 5, was not aimed at disabling any satellites.
"The missile used during the test followed a ballistic trajectory and splashed down into the Pacific Ocean," agency spokesman Rick Lehner told MSNBC.com. "It did not strike any objects along the way."
A high-level U.S, military source, now retired, was also skeptical about the Russian claims. He discussed the case in an e-mail exchange with MSNBC.com, on condition of anonymity.
"I have zero experience which would indicate that any U.S. entity would have done this intentionally at any level of classification." he wrote. "Inadvertent illuminations are possible and have occurred involving U.S. assets, public, private, and/or government, affecting government (and possibly commercial) satellites in the past."
Experience also has shown that satellites occasionally "die" suddenly from catastrophic breakdowns of power or communications systems, so it remains possible that there was no external influence on the Universitetsky-Tatiana's failure. The payload was built by the Polyot spacecraft plant in Omsk, a facility already noted for its aging workforce and underfunded production line in the years after the Soviet collapse.
James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is also an expert on Soviet and Russian space policy and author of the book "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."