Jeffrey LewisPolyus Skif

Slashdot notes the recent publication of images of Polyus-Skif—a Soviet satellite unsuccessfully launched in May 1987

Polyus-Skif is an object of interest because some space hawks claim it was a space-weapon. Typical is Jim Oberg, who wrote in the New Scientist that “A working particle beam is believed to have been on board the mysterious Soviet ‘battlestar’ Polyus-Skif, which was launched in May 1987 but crashed during take-off. Polyus-Skif also carried a prototype laser for destroying satellites.” In an e-mail posted on another blog, Oberg adds to the story, coming this close to a conspiracy theory.

This was the bird that the Soviet’s military built and planned to launch without telling Gorbachev—he found out, and ordered the rocket test to proceed but the payload to not be activated.

Conveniently—and I suspect, not accidentally—the orbit circularization burn at first apogee failed. May 1987, I recall.

For what it is worth, official Soviet announcements described the satellite as a “mock-up.” I’ve read that the Gorbachev story comes from Yuri Kornilov, Chief Designer of the Salyut Design Bureau, in an article he wrote for the Russian Academy of Sciences journal Earth and the Universe.

According to Jonathan McDowell (who is double checking his notes), the reality is less sexy:

The first launch of the Energiya booster carried a 100 tonne spacecraft, 17F19DM Skif-DM, which was a prototype of the Polyus (pole) station. Skif-DM was built around a TKS-type FSB (Funktsional’no-sluzhebnovo blok, Operations/service Unit), No. 162, with an enormous payload section carrying a mockup prototype laser weapon (no actual weapon was aboard).

The Polyus was 37.57 m long and 4.1m in diameter, with a planned in orbit mass of 88 tonnes. It may have included a set of subsatellites which were to have been used for a missile defense sensor technology experiment, similar to the US Delta 181 mission, although these may have been cancelled prior to launch.

I hope that he’ll expound in Jonathan’s Space Report.

For what it is worth, declassified CIA analyses of Soviet directed energy capabilities suggested that the Soviets would not be able to develop working prototypes of particle beams and other directed energy weapons until the mid-1990s.