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Computer-simulated views of high-altitude nuclear explosions produced at the Institute of Computer-Aided Design (IAP) in Moscow. (Source)

Russian research on space nukes and alternative counterspace weapons (part 1)


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In February, White House officials asserted that Russia is developing a space-based anti-satellite system that would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in orbit. They later confirmed media speculation that the system in question is a nuclear weapon. Part 1 of this article summarizes what has been revealed about the alleged weapon so far and attempts to chart academic and laboratory research on nuclear explosions in space done in Russia in recent years. It also examines a Russian satellite launch that the US believes is related to the development of the weapon. Part 2 will explore Russian work on alternative directed-energy weapon systems that would mimic some of the effects of nuclear explosions in space without having the same devastating consequences.

Reports on a Russian space-based nuclear weapon

The commotion over the weapon began on February 14 with a post on social media by House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Turner, who said his panel had information concerning ”a serious national security threat” and called on President Joe Biden to declassify all information relating to the threat. Turner did not elaborate on the nature of the threat, but press reports the same day claimed it was a Russian space-based nuclear weapon. Responding to the reports on February 15, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed that it involved a Russian anti-satellite capability, but that it was ”not an active capability that’s been deployed” and did not pose an immediate threat to anyone’s safety. In Kirby’s words, it was not a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction on Earth.

President Biden told reporters that US intelligence had found that Russia had a capacity to launch a system into space ”that could theoretically do something that was damaging.”

Kirby did not address questions about whether the system was a nuclear weapon or was simply powered by nuclear energy, but did say that it was space-based and would violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which specifically forbids the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, including nuclear arms. He also said that the intelligence community’s general knowledge of Russian pursuit of this kind of capability went back ”many, many months, if not a few years”, but that only in recent weeks it had been possible to assess with a higher sense of confidence exactly how Russia continues to pursue it. Kirby stated that the intelligence community had serious concerns about a broad declassification of this intelligence and assessed that ”private engagement” rather than immediately publicizing the intelligence could be a more effective approach.[1] According to the Washington Post, the intelligence was obtained under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.[2] This allows the US government to collect foreign intelligence by targeting non-US persons located abroad who use US electronic communication services such as email and phone calls.

Kirby
John Kirby addressing reporters on February 15.

The following day, President Biden told reporters that US intelligence had found that Russia had a capacity to launch a system into space ”that could theoretically do something that was damaging.” He stressed that there was no nuclear threat to the people of America or anywhere else in the world, saying the system was designed only to damage satellites in space. He added that there was no evidence that Russia had made a decision to go forward ”with anything in space.”

This is all that the White House publicly revealed at the time about the Russian space weapon. All the additional information on it came from anonymous sources quoted by leading US media outlets. On February 16, NBC quoted ”a US official and a congressional official familiar with the intelligence” as saying that the threat was a Russian nuclear-powered space asset that could be weaponized, rather than a nuclear bomb.[3] This led to speculation that the weapon in question might be Ekipazh, a nuclear-powered satellite under development at the KB Arsenal design bureau that was first revealed in The Space Review in 2019. There were strong indications at the time that the satellite would be used for space-based electronic warfare and this is backed up by additional evidence that has appeared more recently.[4]

While the White House did not categorically state that the weapon was a nuclear warhead, its claim that it violates the Outer Space Treaty strongly pointed in that direction. The treaty does not forbid the deployment in orbit of satellites powered by nuclear energy. Moreover, even a constellation of nuclear-powered electronic warfare satellites like Ekipazh would hardly constitute a weapon of mass destruction.

The fact that the weapon is nuclear-armed was also confirmed by sources consulted by ABC, CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. CNN provided the most specific information, reporting that the weapon would produce a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and a flood of highly charged particles that could potentially cripple a vast swath of commercial and government satellites orbiting the Earth. According to one defense official quoted by CNN, there had been a stream of intelligence reporting in recent months on Russian efforts to develop nuclear-powered anti-satellite capabilities (a possible reference to Ekipazh), but Russia had recently also made progress in efforts to build a nuclear EMP weapon. It might render large portions of particular orbits unusable by creating a minefield of disabled satellites that would then prove dangerous to any new satellites that the US might try to launch to replace or repair the existing ones. [5]

On February 17, the New York Times reported that American intelligence officials had become aware of the new Russian capability after analyzing ”a series of secret military satellite launches” carried out by Russia around the time of its invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Another New York Times story on February 21 seemed to refer to a single test conducted in early 2022. It had reportedly taken US intelligence agencies some time to figure out that the test was a practice run for putting a nuclear weapon into orbit. Also, US intelligence agencies had told their closest European partners that if Russia was going to launch a nuclear weapon into orbit, it would probably do so this year, although they were divided on whether it would be a harmless dummy warhead or a real one.[6]

An official reaction from the Kremlin came during a televised meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on February 20. Putin strongly denied the existence of the weapon, saying Russia had always been categorically against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space and was still against it. Shoigu accused the White House of having made the allegations to force Congress to support aid for Ukraine and also encourage Moscow to re-enter nuclear arms control talks that had been suspended amid the tensions with the US over Ukraine.

Plumb said that a sufficiently powerful nuclear detonation in the right location could render low Earth orbit unusable for up to a year.

In an apparent response to these developments, the US and Japan drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on all nations to reaffirm their commitment not to deploy nuclear weapons in space and also to pledge not to develop them either, something not specifically stipulated in the Outer Space Treaty. When the resolution was submitted to a vote on April 24, it was supported by 13 of the 15 council members, with China abstaining and Russia casting a veto.

Dismissing the resolution as a ”dirty spectacle,” Russia’s UN ambassador Vasiliy Nebenzia said it didn’t go far enough in banning space-based weapons. Russia and China subsequently proposed an amendment to the US-Japan draft that would ban the placement of any type of weapon in orbit, but the US was one of seven countries that voted against. In a reaction to the Russian veto of the Security Council resolution, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated the US assessment that Russia is developing ”a new satellite carrying a nuclear device,” adding that if Russia had no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space, as claimed by Vladimir Putin, it would not have vetoed the resolution.[7]

Final confirmation that the suspected device is indeed a nuclear weapon came from Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on May 1. He said that a sufficiently powerful nuclear detonation in the right location could render low Earth orbit unusable for up to a year. Plumb declined to elaborate in an open session on the development status of the weapon, repeating only that it was not considered an imminent threat.[8]

Nuclear weapons in space

In the absence of any concrete evidence for the existence the weapon, the reports have drawn the necessary skepticism from analysts. While a nuclear explosion in space is the only effective way of knocking out entire constellations of satellites (like SpaceX’s Starlink), it would also disable a significant portion of Russia’s own satellite fleet. The only logic seen behind the deployment of such a weapon is its use as a deterrent or as a last-ditch weapon in case all other options are exhausted. Questions were also raised about the wisdom of actually orbiting a nuclear weapon, which makes it more vulnerable to detection and even attack. A nuclear weapon can just as well be delivered to space by intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missiles flying on a suborbital trajectory. That is the way both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted a number of high-altitude nuclear explosions between 1958 and 1962.

The largest of these was the US Starfish Prime test on July 9, 1962, in which a 1.44-megaton nuclear bomb was detonated 400 kilometers above the mid-Pacific Ocean. The artificial radiation belt produced by the explosion led to the failure of several of the relatively few satellites orbiting the Earth at the time and its electromagnetic pulse blew out hundreds of streetlights in Hawaii and caused widespread telephone outages.

Starfish Prime
Images of the 1962 Starfish Prime test.

The worst effects of a Soviet high-altitude test were from the electromagnetic pulse of a 300-kiloton weapon detonated at an altitude of 290 kilometers above Kazakhstan on October 22, 1962. Although far less powerful than Starfish Prime, the weapon was tested over a large, populated landmass and at a location where the Earth’s magnetic field was greater. Among other things, it induced a current surge in an underground power line that caused a fire in a power plant in the city of Karaganda.

The tests clearly demonstrated that the impact of nuclear detonations in space is not restricted to satellites. In fact, the higher the altitude of the detonation, the bigger the EMP field on the ground. While the EMP is not dangerous to humans, it can have a major impact on critical ground-based infrastructure (such as the electric grid) and therefore directly affect people’s lives. If Russia is indeed developing such a weapon, the White House’s claim that it is solely aimed against satellites should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

While the EMP is not dangerous to humans, it can have a major impact on critical ground-based infrastructure (such as the electric grid) and therefore directly affect people’s lives.

The high-altitude nuclear tests of the late 1950s and early 1960s contributed to the signing of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited all test detonations of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water, allowing countries to proceed only with underground nuclear tests. Despite the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 (which prohibited stationing nuclear weapons in orbit), the Soviet Union did continue work on a project to launch a nuclear weapon that would be de-orbited before completing a single revolution around the Earth and approach the United States from the south, thereby evading most of the country’s missile early warning systems, which were predominantly pointed towards the North Pole. It became known in the West as the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). Tests flights with dummy warheads were carried out between 1965 and 1971.[9]

Since then, there have been no clear signs that the orbiting of nuclear weapons has been part of the Soviet Union’s or Russia’s military doctrine. At least some insight into current Russian thinking on counterspace weapons was provided by a lengthy two-part article that appeared last year in ”Voyennaya Mysl” (”Military Thinking”), the flagship theoretical journal of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. The article gives a general outline of counterspace systems that could potentially be fielded in the future and, quite unusually, also mentions two currently existing Russian anti-satellite systems by name, namely the Nudol direct-ascent ASAT missile (which destroyed a defunct Soviet-era satellite in November 2021) and the ground-based Peresvet laser system, designed to dazzle or blind optical reconnaissance satellites trying to follow the movements of Russian mobile ICBM forces.

When discussing nuclear explosions in space, the authors refer to the 1962 Starfish Prime test to illustrate their far-reaching consequences. Describing them as ”effective”, they also call them a ”double-edged sword” because they destroy not only the enemy’s satellites, but also those of the country that detonates the weapon. A similar test carried out today would disable an estimated 90% of satellites in low Earth orbit and would make piloted space missions impossible ”for some time,” the authors write. They don’t specifically mention the possibility of placing nuclear weapons into orbit. Still, that should not necessarily be seen as evidence that such an option is not being considered. Although the affiliation of the authors is not given, they can be linked through other sources to the KB Arsenal design bureau and the Mozhaiskiy Military Space Academy and are therefore unlikely to be in a position to be privy to all the details of Russia’s counterspace efforts.[10]

New Russian research on high-altitude nuclear explosions

Notwithstanding the fact that the high-altitude nuclear explosions of the 1950s and 1960s provided a considerable amount of data on their effects on satellites and ground-based infrastructure, any new efforts in this field would undoubtedly require fundamental research into such things as the formation of artificial radiation belts, the propagation of electromagnetic pulses through the ionosphere (which stretches from about 50 to 1,000 kilometers above Earth) and their impact on orbiting hardware. The results of such research may well appear in the academic literature without being tied to any concrete projects or even to nuclear weapons as such. This would provide at least some clues about any renewed interest in the use of nuclear weapons in space, irrespective of whether they are deployed in orbit or delivered by a suborbital missile.

One organization that would almost certainly play a key role in such work is the Russian Federal Nuclear Center – All-Russian Scientific Research Institute for Experimental Physics (RFYaTs-VNIIEF), which operates under the wings of the Rosatom State Corporation. Situated in Sarov in the Nizhniy Novgorod region some 400 kilometers east of Moscow, this is Russia’s leading research center in the field of nuclear weapons, although it also specializes in other areas such as laser technology. RFYaTs-VNIIEF also has ties to the space program. It has a so-called Center for Space Instrument Building that is involved in several scientific projects (such as the Spektr-UV ultraviolet observatory and the Gamma-400 gamma observatory) and also works on space-based laser communications systems. The institute also has infrastructure to test the effects of space radiation on satellite components. Besides that, RFYaTs-VNIIEF is known to have some kind of involvement in KB Arsenal’s Ekipazh project, acting as a subcontractor to Krasnaya Zvezda, the producer of the satellite’s thermionic nuclear reactor. Moreover, it is also the prime contractor for the Peresvet anti-satellite laser dazzling system.

There is no direct evidence that RFYaTs-VNIIEF is doing any specific research into the effects of nuclear blasts on satellites, but it does have the infrastructure needed to do this.

A search of the RFYaTs-VNIIEF literature does indeed turn up recent papers discussing the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions. One name appearing in most of them is Vadim A. Zhmailo, who works for VNIIEF’s Institute of Theoretical and Mathematical Physics (ITMF), which performs theoretical studies in support of Russia’s nuclear weapons programs. Using data from the 1962 US Starfish Prime test as a starting point, Zhmailo’s team has employed new computer simulation techniques to better understand the consequences of such events. Their main interest seems to lie in the artificial radiation belts spawned by nuclear explosions in space. These result from highly energetic electrons (so-called beta particles) that become trapped in the Earth’s geomagnetic field. These belts, which can last for several years, can seriously affect satellites, degrading their electronics and solar panels.[11]

The research is not purely theoretical. Zhmailo has collaborated with other researchers to simulate the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions in the laboratory. Since nuclear tests in space have been banned since 1963, this obviously is the best way to learn more about them. One RFYaTs-VNIIEF department engaged in this work is the Institute of Laser Physics (ILFI). This has three testbeds (Luch, Iskra-5/MKV-4 and MIK) that are at least partially intended to simulate the formation of artificial radiation belts resulting from high-altitude nuclear explosions. In the experiments, laser beams are aimed at small metal targets inside a vacuum chamber to generate highly energetic electrons that are subsequently trapped in a small magnetic field. The properties of the electrons are then measured using magnetic spectrometers and dosimetric sensors. The experiments, which in some articles are unambiguously linked to high-altitude nuclear explosions, go back to at least 2012 and the latest results were reported in 2023, indicating the work is still ongoing.[12]

vacuum chamber
The MKV-4 vacuum chamber, a testbed connected to the Iskra-5 laser facility. (credit: RFYaTs-VNIIEF)

Other experiments are being carried out at RFYaTs-VNIIEF’s Scientific Production Center of Physics (NPTsF) in a testbed called NPM-01, which became operational in 2013. It is a 7.5-by-1-meter plasma chamber surrounded by selenoids that create a magnetic field to trap high-speed particles. NPM-01 was designed specifically to study ”physical processes accompanying large-scale phenomena in near-Earth space.” Articles on the experiments (many of which are co-authored by Zhmailo) link them to studies of the Earth’s radiation belts. They can help calculate changes in radiation belts spanning from several seconds to several years. More specifically, NPM-01 can be used to study a ”wide range of electromagnetic waves” affecting the distribution of electrons in radiation belts. The most recently reported experiments have focused on the simulation of so-called magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) waves, which according to one of the papers can have ”a natural or technogenic origin.” The latter may refer to the so-called magnetohydrodynamic electromagnetic pulse, one of three types of electromagnetic pulses generated by a nuclear explosion. Also known as E3, it is caused by the detonation’s temporary distortion of the Earth’s magnetic field and has similarities to solar-induced geomagnetic storms.[13]

testbed
The NPM-01 testbed. (Source)

There is no direct evidence that RFYaTs-VNIIEF is doing any specific research into the effects of nuclear blasts on satellites, but it does have the infrastructure needed to do this. Operating within its Institute of Nuclear and Radiation Physics (IYaRF) is a Center for Radiation Studies and Tests which specializes in studying the effects of natural space radiation on satellite components to certify them for use in space. Equipped with a wide array of test installations, it carries out orders for several companies belonging to Roscosmos. It is worth noting that one of the specialists taking part in the tests has also been involved in the research on high-altitude nuclear explosions. [14]

In 2021, plans were announced to significantly expand these capabilities with the construction of a synchrotron complex. A synchrotron is a cyclic particle accelerator that can accelerate charged particles to phenomenal speeds through sequences of magnets. Two linear accelerators (one for protons and one for both light and heavy ions) as well as a so-called booster synchrotron will successively accelerate particles before they are injected into the main synchrotron or ”storage ring.” Particles from both the booster and main synchrotron can be diverted via ”beamlines” to laboratories, where their interaction with various materials can be studied.

A similar synchrotron complex is used by NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory near New York, but here only particles extracted from the booster synchrotron are used for research related to spaceflight. At the complex under construction at RFYaTs-VNIIEF, studying the interaction of radiation with satellite components will be the main goal of both the booster and main synchrotron. In 2021, the facility was expected to enter operation in 2027.[15] In addition to that, a sister organization of RFYaTs-VNIIEF, called RFYaTs-VNIITF and based in Snezhinsk near Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains, reported in August last year that it had broken ground for a building housing a cyclotron that is also specifically designed for such experiments. It is supposed to become operational by 2026.[16] At least part of the reason for the expansion of these capabilities may be the need to certify a growing number of Russian-built electronic components now that access to Western space-rated components has become difficult due to economic sanctions imposed on Russia.

synchrotron building
Drawing of the building that will house RFYaTs-VNIIEF’s synchrotron complex. The main synchrotron is the big yellow circle. (Source)

Research on high-altitude nuclear explosions is also being done at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computer-Aided Design (IAP) in Moscow, which specializes in computer simulations in support of a wide field of areas such as astronomy, physics and medicine. The person leading the research is Yevgeniy L. Stupitskiy, who has written papers on the subject for several decades. Stupitskiy also holds a teaching position at a university called the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI). One of his co-researchers was Aleksandr S. Kholodov, another MFTI professor, who headed IAP until his death in 2017.

Stupitskiy’s research has focused mainly on the behavior of plasma waves generated by nuclear explosions, more specifically on their propagation through the ionosphere and their effects on orbiting satellites. An important part of the work in recent years has been to study the interaction between plasma waves created by two high-altitude nuclear explosions carried out with an interval of just seconds (as seen in the computer-simulated view heading this article). The altitudes studied have ranged from 100 to 1,000 kilometers, with the explosions taking place either at different altitudes or at the same altitude.[17]

Before moving to IAP, Stupitskiy was affiliated with 12 TsNII, the Ministry of Defense’s leading research institute on nuclear explosions and their effects. The institute is based in Sergiyev Posad, some 100 kilometers north of Moscow. Some of its research has focused on protecting satellites against nuclear blasts. One paper published by 12 TsNII discussed how ground-based ionospheric heating facilities could inject very low-frequency radio waves into the ionosphere to mitigate some of the damaging effects that artificial radiation belts have on satellites. Russia operates such a facility (named ”Sura”) about 100 kilometers east of Nizhniy Novgorod.[18]

It should be cautioned that the research described above is not necessarily a sign that Russia is actively working on a space-based nuclear weapon. It merely demonstrates that there is continuing interest in studying the effects of high-altitude nuclear explosions. Similar theoretical work is taking place in the United States and China, although it is hard to assess on what scale. For instance, scientists at the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have in recent years used declassified data from the Starfish Prime test to develop a code (named Topanga) that enables them to make 3D simulations of the E3 portion of the electromagnetic pulse.[19] In late 2022, a team of Chinese researchers published the results of computer simulations they had done of a nuclear explosion at an altitude of 80 kilometers and its effects on orbiting satellites [20]. What does seem to be unique to the Russian research is that it has moved to the stage of laboratory experiments, although the significance of that is difficult to assess.

Kosmos-2553

As mentioned earlier, two New York Times stories in February quoted sources as saying that one or more tests related to the suspected nuclear weapon had taken place around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. More specific information was provided early this month by Mallory Stewart, State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Arms Control, Deterrence and Stability. Speaking about the Russian nuclear space weapon at an event in Washington on May 3, she talked about a suspect Russian satellite that had enabled the US to make ”a more precise assessment” of Russia’s progress on the weapon.

While the satellite is indeed exposed to higher doses of radiation in its 2,000-kilometer orbit, there are compelling reasons to believe that it is a military radar reconnaissance satellite.

Stewart said the satellite had been launched into ”a region not used by any other spacecraft” and that Russia had claimed it was going to be used for scientific goals, namely the testing of electronics in a high radiation environment. She pointed out that while the orbit was indeed in a region of higher radiation than normal lower Earth orbits, the radiation levels were not high enough to allow ”accelerated testing of electronics”. Stewart thereby implicitly seemed to suggest that the satellite has something to do with the nuclear weapon, although she did not specify exactly what and why that orbit would be suited for it. She did repeat the earlier White House assessment that the weapon was not an immediate threat, which implies the satellite is not believed to actually carry a live nuclear weapon.[21]

All this makes it possible to identify the satellite as Kosmos-2553, launched on February 5, 2022, into a circular 2,000-kilometer orbit inclined 67.1 degrees to the Equator. An insider on a Russian space forum identified it as 14F01, which is the military index for a satellite that is referred to in several publicly available documents as Neitron (”neutron”) and occasionally also as Tekhnolog (”technologist”). The project began in December 2011 with a contract awarded by the Ministry of Defense to NPO Mashinostroyeniya in Moscow, a company that traces its roots to the Soviet-era design bureau founded by Vladimir Chelomei.

Kosmos-2553 launch
The launch of Kosmos-2553 from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in February 2022. (credit: Russian Ministry of Defense)

After the satellite’s launch, which seems to have taken place years behind schedule, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it would study the effects of radiation and charged particles on newly developed onboard systems. Most likely, this was just a cover story for its true mission. While the satellite is indeed exposed to higher doses of radiation in its 2,000-kilometer orbit, there are compelling reasons to believe that it is a military radar reconnaissance satellite. First, the only satellites that NPO Mashinostroyeniya has built after the turn of the century are radar imaging satellites of the Kondor type and it can be determined from a variety of sources that Neitron shares several design features with the Kondor bus. The three Kondor type satellites launched so far (one of which was built for South Africa) have been used for a mix of civilian and military purposes. Neitron could well be a modified version of those satellites that is on a dedicated military mission.

Kondor-FKA
The civilian Kondor-FKA satellite, launched in May 2023. (Credit: NPO Mashinostroyeniya)

Second, Kosmos-2553 repeats its ground track with an accuracy of about one kilometer every four days, which is strongly indicative of an Earth remote sensing mission. It would be ideal for interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) imaging, a technique that requires a satellite to pass over exactly the same region at different times and obtain images from slightly different viewing angles to generate 3D maps of features on Earth. The high orbit shortens the ground track repeat cycle and also offers a wider field of view. For comparison, America’s Topaz military radar reconnaissance satellites are in 1,100-kilometer orbits (also a region rarely used by satellites) and have a two-day ground track repeat pattern, most likely for the same reason. There were indications that Neitron was going to be joined in orbit by a sister satellite, possibly to expand the radar interferometry capabilities, but that launch has so far not taken place.[22]

Still, it is not impossible that the satellite is performing radiation studies as a secondary mission. Possible evidence for that comes from a study most likely related to Neitron that was conducted by Moscow State University’s Skobeltsyn Scientific Research Institute of Nuclear Physics (NIIYaF) in early 2012. It focused on the effects of ”ionizing space radiation” (both solar energetic particles and particles trapped in the Earth’s natural radiation belts) on satellites operating in challenging radiation environments. The researchers calculated the radiation dose that the satellites would receive behind ”flat and spherical protective screens” to determine the location of radiation detectors aboard the satellites.[23] It should also be noted that in August 2013 NPO Mashinostroyeniya signed a contract for Neitron with RFYaTs-VNIIEF. This is known from a court document published in 2021.[24] All that is known about its role in the project is that it was to carry out certification tests of a device known as NTSZ ATS35012, the purpose of which is unclear. Possibly, it involved the use of RFYaTs-VNIIEF’s infrastructure to certify radiation-hardened components for installation aboard the satellite.

In short, there are no obvious signs from publicly available source material that the mission of Kosmos-2553 has any direct connection with the suspected nuclear weapon. Based on the available information, all that it could potentially be testing with relation to such a weapon would be shielding to protect satellites from the effects of its detonation. It could also demonstrate the ability to operate satellites in what is sometimes called a ”nuclear-safe orbit,” one that is high and stable enough for a nuclear device (whether that be a bomb or a reactor) to be stored safely for an unlimited period of time.

Delivery systems

If Russia does intend to place nuclear weapons into orbit, it may elect to do so with modified ICBMs rather than with conventional launch vehicles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, several ICBMs were converted into space launch vehicles, mainly to serve the needs of the commercial launch industry. None of these programs are currently active, but two are expected to be resurrected in the near future.

One is Rokot, a liquid-fuel rocket based on the UR-100UTTKh ICBM, which used to be marketed by a joint Russian-European venture named Eurockot. During a visit to the Plesetsk cosmodrome in late April, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that a modified version of the rocket will start flights from the cosmodrome next December.

If Russia does intend to place nuclear weapons into orbit, it may elect to do so with modified ICBMs rather than with conventional launch vehicles.

Another converted ICBM scheduled to make its comeback is Start, a launch vehicle derived from the Topol-M solid-fuel ICBMs of the MIT Corporation that is launched from a transporter erector launcher. A new four-stage version of the rocket known as Start-1M is expected to be launched from both Plesetsk and the Vostochnyy cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East beginning in 2026.

Recently, plans have also emerged for a mysterious missile named Bureya that seems to be very similar in concept to Start-1M. It is based on the MIT Corporation’s Topol-M or Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles and is designed to be launched from the same type of transporter erector launcher. It can be outfitted with two types of ”kick stages” that may very well give it an orbital capability. According to environmental impact reports published in 2023, test flights of the missile will be staged from both Plesetsk and the Kapustin Yar test range near Volgograd. The payloads for these test flights (identified only as ”Product G”) will be either mock-ups or ”telemetry measurement systems”. [25]

No satellite payloads have been announced for any of these rockets so far. If they ultimately fly, they will undoubtedly be used mainly to place Russian military payloads into orbit and could potentially also orbit a nuclear weapon, the very type of payload they were originally designed to carry. In that case, it would have to be delivered to a relatively low orbit given the limited payload capacity of these rockets.

References

  1. John Kirby’s full press conference is here.
  2. S. Harrios, E. Nakashima, J. Hudson, Officials sound alarm about new Russian ‘space threat’, The Washington Post, February 14, 2024.
  3. R. Shabad, Biden says ‘no nuclear threat’ to U.S. as Russia considers potential space weapon, NBC, February 16, 2024.
  4. B. Hendrickx, Ekipazh: Russia’s top-secret nuclear-powered satellite, The Space Review, October 7, 2019 ; updates in the Ekipazh thread on the NASA Spaceflight Forum.
  5. K. Lillis, J. Sciutto, K. Fisher, N. Bertrand, Russia attempting to develop nuclear space weapon to destroy satellites with massive energy wave, sources familiar with intel say, CNN, February 17, 2024.
  6. U.S. Fears Russia might put a nuclear weapon in space, New York Times, February 17, 2024 ; U.S. warns allies Russia could put a nuclear weapon into orbit this year, New York Đ¢imes, February 21, 2024.
  7. Statement from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, April 24, 2024.
  8. Video of the House Armed Services Committee hearing, May 1, 2024 (54:00–1:19:10); Written testimony by John Plumb, May 1, 2014, p. 4.
  9. A. Siddiqi, The Soviet Fractional Orbiting Bombardment System (FOBS): a short technical history, Quest, 2000.
  10. Two-part article published in 2023 (part 1 (p. 35–52), part 2 (p. 45–63))
  11. Articles published in 2012 (p.91), 2015 and 2019.
  12. Articles published in 2012 (p. 142–143) (with English translation), 2018 (p. 3–4) (plus three others no longer online), 2019 and 2023 (no longer online).
  13. Articles published in 2018 (no longer online), 2019 (p. 253), 2020 (p. 308), 2022 (p. 276), and 2024 (p. 342).
  14. Article published in 2018.
  15. Press release by RFYaTs-VNIIEF, September 17, 2021 ; Articles published in 2021 (1 (p. 22), 2 (p. 113–116))
  16. Press release by RFYaTs-VNIITF, August 30, 2023.
  17. Articles published in 2012, 2016, and 2020; Monograph published in 2020; PhD dissertation published in 2023.
  18. Article published in 2016 (p. 79–82).
  19. L. Boatman, Sixty years after, physicists model electromagnetic pulse of a once-secret nuclear test, APS News, November 10, 2022; Paper on the Topanga simulations published in 2024.
  20. Article published in the South China Morning Post, October 20, 2022 (paywalled). A summary is here.
  21. Video of Mallory Stewart appearing at an event organized by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 3, 2024.
  22. For more details on the project, see the Neitron program thread and the Kosmos-2553 mission thread on the NASA Spaceflight Forum.
  23. Summary of a study carried out under the name ”Tekhnolog”, an alternative name used for Neitron.
  24. Court document published in December 2021.
  25. Environmental protection reports for test flights of Bureya from Plesetsk and Kapustin Yar. For analysis of these reports, see the latest post in this thread on the NASA Spaceflight Forum. There could be a link with the Aerostat project.

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