The mystery space probe had most likely loitered in Earth’s orbit for more than five years. The satellite was believed to have been built by Russia to hunt and destroy enemy satellites.

But a former NASA expert believes the cutting-edge tech broke up in orbit unannounced in late December 2019.

The inference is that Kosmos-2491 may have disintegrated

Dr Jonathan McDowell

Astronomer Dr Jonathan McDowell wrote on Twitter: “In December 2013 Russia launched… three military communications satellites and a fourth, initially unannounced, payload, later acknowledged with the cover name Kosmos-2491.

“It appeared to end its mission in 2014.

“However, at about 1.21pm UTC on 2019 December 23, the satellite made an orbit change and 10 debris objects have now been catalogued.”

The sudden appearance of debris suggests the unmanned spacecraft disintegrated in orbit.

The Kremlin has not commented on the explained loss of the space satellite.

According to Dr McDowell, the explosion could have been a deliberate move or simply the consequence of a random collision with cosmic debris.

He wrote: ”The inference is that Kosmos-2491 may have disintegrated.”

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The astronomer believes this could have occurred “through deliberate destruction, accidental battery or prop event, or through an accidental debris collision”.

Dr McDowell added: “I lean to accident since it is my guess the satellite has been dead for several years, but it’s not certain.”

Dr McDowell used to work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The expert now works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The space expert later concluded propellant remaining in one of the craft’s fuel tanks may have led to the Kosmos-2491 explosion.

He wrote: “After sleeping on it, I lean towards a residual-prop debris event.

“Rocket stages which don’t do depletion burns sometimes blow up years later.

“Although K2491 did not manoeuvre other sats of its type did; maybe the prop system failed and was still full.

“So that’s what I’m labelling it as for now, however, an external orbital debris hit is only slightly less likely.”

The Russian military has never commented publicly about Kosmos-2491’s short mission – leading some to speculate about the spy satellite’s real objective.

Some experts remain convinced the satellite was a new form of next-generation space weapon.

The rumours led Russian space agency chief Oleg Ostapenko to insist the technology was not a “killer satellite” at a press conference in December 2014.

However, experts warn the tech is a precursor to heavily armed space probes designed to destroy rival satellites.

US State Department assistant secretary Yleem Poblete told a conference in 2018: “We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it.

“But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development – particularly when considered in concert with statements by Russia’s Space Force Commander.”

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