Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Russia's Cosmos 2495: Fiery Fall of Russian Spy Satellite Debris

A global network of skywatching detectives has pieced together the strange story of a Russian military spy satellite that re-entered Earth's atmosphere earlier this month, the leftovers of which sparked a spectacular sky show over five U.S. states.

Observers across parts of Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico caught sight of debris from the military satellite via a fireball on Sept. 2 around 10:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time, reporting their observations to the American Meteor Society.

The focus of attention is Russia's Cosmos 2495, an Earth-imaging reconnaissance (Kobalt-M) satellite. It was a hefty spacecraft, in the Kobalt-M series, a family member of the Yantar chain of Russian satellites. Russia launched the satellite on its intelligence-gathering mission on May 6 of this year. [Photos: Declassified U.S. Spy Satellites]

The resulting fireball from parts of the Cosmos 2495 spysat's re-entry was not only spotted by skywatchers. It was also caught that night by a number of all-sky cameras, including the Cloudbait Observatory  here in the central Colorado Rocky Mountains.

An on-line buzz about the occurrence found a home at SeeSat-L, the mailing list for visual satellite observers, which has become an invaluable tool to study all manner of spacecraft events. So here's what happened with Cosmos 2495.

Satellite tracker Thomas Ashcraft, of Heliotown in Santa Fe, New Mexico, captured this long-exposure view of the brilliant fireball created by debris from a suspected Russian spy satellite on Sept. 2, 2014. 

Credit: Thomas Ashcraft/Heliotown

Graphic shows the actual time and track of the suspected piece of Russian Cosmos 2495 debris in relation to sightings.

Credit: Ted Molczan

Russian spysat falls from space

This multipart Cosmos 2495 consists of an equipment module, an instrument module, a camera re-entry vehicle and a large sun shade with additional antennae and sensors.

It is designed to re-enter Earth's atmosphere so that its camera canister can be retrieved by a recovery crew.

At the end of its mission on Sept. 2, the Russian spysat fired its engine to begin its return to Earth. Its fiery re-entry was witnessed and videoed from a large part of western Kazakhstan.

The module carrying the cargo of exposed film and a reusable camera separated, and is believed to have landed near the city of Orenburg in Russia. The remainder of the spacecraft, meanwhile, burned up as planned.

Now, it appears that the slow-moving fireball spotted over the U.S. on Sept. 2 — some 10 hours after Cosmos 2495's intelligence camera module had safely touched down — was due to a lingering leftover from the Soviet military spacecraft.

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