Is it just a piece of space junk, or an orbital predator?
That is the question many amateur astronomers and, no doubt, military professionals are asking themselves as they track an odd space vehicle, known as Object 2014-28E, as it appears to maneuver among other satellites. Some suggest it could be the reincarnation of the top-secret Soviet-era "Istrebitel Sputnikov" satellite killer program, which was shelved when the USSR collapsed more than two decades ago.
The object, launched last May in a cluster with several other Russian satellites, was originally classified as space debris. But then it started moving around in ways uncharacteristic for inert trash, and it rang alarm bells last weekend when it appeared to rendezvous with a piece of the rocket that originally launched it.
There is no official comment from Moscow. Although the Russian media has lately been full of stories about a new generation of Russian satellites and ambitious plans to revive the once-mighty Soviet space program, there has been no mention of an undeclared, highly maneuverable satellite as part of Russia's currently operating space inventory.
Experts quoted by the Financial Times warn against rushing to judgment. Assuming the observations are accurate, the object could have several possible missions, including satellite repair and removing dangerous space junk from orbital corridors. But given the Russian secrecy surrounding its launch and orbital activities, they say, it could just as easily be a military project.
Most Russian space experts refuse to even discuss the claim that Object 2014-28E might be part of a renewed Russian "satellite killer" program. Some claim the reports are just part of a wave of "cold war hysteria" sweeping the West, including headlines about alleged Russian submarines lurking in Swedish waters, or alarmist reports about what the Russians describe as the renewal of routine Soviet-era military patrols in international airspace.
"I keep reading these stories about Russian troops invading Ukraine, invisible submarines, and now secret satellites. You should talk to a psychotherapist about this, not to me," says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.
Alexander Golts, a military expert with the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal, says that little is known about the Soviet Istrebitel Sputnikov project. Even today there are only rumors about a manned vehicle that had been developed to cruise the spaceways and destroy enemy satellites in the event of World War III.
He says he does not completely discount the speculations about Object 2014-28E, but adds that there are strong reasons to remain skeptical.
"For one thing, all Russian arms control policies are founded on strong objections to the militarization of space. We know we could not win, technologically, in a space arms race with the US. Hence our main goal is to prevent it through political and diplomatic means. Getting caught launching an actual satellite killer would upend decades of patient Russian diplomacy about this," he says.
Second, he adds, Russia's military space program is still far behind its targets.
"We have only two of the needed 10 early warning satellites in operation today. The very last thing we should want to do just now is trigger a space arms race."