X-37B Likely Spying on China’s Space Station

We may finally have a clue what the U.S. Air Force’s secret space plane, the X-37B, is up to on its record breaking mission in the heavens. Amatuer satellite trackers have noticed that the robo-shuttle’s orbital path is nearly identical to China’s brand new space station, Tiangong-1, which was launched in September.

Remember, the X-37B can stay aloft for nearly a year and is capable of changing its orbits around the Earth. These features, combined with the secrecy surrounding its missions have prompted many people to speculate that it is a spy craft capable of launching small spy satellites and snooping on other nation’s satellites up close.

“Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor Dr. David Baker tells the BBC.

Remember, OTV-2, the second of two X-37Bs, launched last March and recently surpassed its official endurance of 270 days in space. It’s very plausible that Air Force officials decided to keep the bird aloft past its max endurance in order to get a better look at the Chinese space station. Tiangong-1 will receive its first human occupants later this year and is intended to serve as a prototype for several larger Chinese space stations.

From the BBC:

The current mission was launched on an Atlas rocket and put into a low orbit, a little over 300km up, with an inclination of 42.79 degrees with respect to the equator - an unusual profile for a US military mission which would normally go into an orbit that circles the poles.

The X-37B’s flight has since been followed from the ground by a dedicated group of optical tracking specialists in the US and Europe, intrigued by what the vehicle may be doing.

These individuals have watched how closely its orbit matches that of Tiangong.

The spacelab, which China expects to man with astronauts in 2012, was launched in September with an inclination of 42.78 degrees, and to a very similar altitude as the OTV.

“The parallels with X-37B are clear,” Dr Baker says in Spaceflight, the long established magazine of the British Interplanetary Society.

“With a period differential of about 19 seconds, the two vehicles will migrate toward or against each other, converging or diverging, roughly every 170 orbits.”

Read more about the U.S. and China in space here.

  • Charles

    Except that it’s not. They intercept orbits at 8 km/s, and their orbits planes are 60 degrees apart. All they are doing is looking at the same thing on the ground.

  • Guest

    Bloopers in Space:

    “A horrendous error appears to have been made by a well-respected British spaceflight society, which reportedly is about to publish an article claiming that the X-37B, the secret Pentagon space plane, is shadowing the recently launched Chinese prototype space station, Tiangong-1, to spy on it in flight.

    But that’s ridiculous. The American plane’s orbit is at a steep angle with respect to that of the Chinese space station. When the two vehicles pass, they do so at speeds of up to 8000 meters per second, making it practically impossible for one to gather intelligence on the other.”


  • Stan

    And even if it were looking the station, what is so important about the uninhabited metal cylinder that the US has to have it under constant observation at considerable expense?

  • Dude

    Interesting; speculative at best.

  • JonhB

    Chicom is just a frankenstein monster the US greedy coprs and politicains created.

    • Mike

      Wake up.

      China is the biggest threat to western democracy. They have more money, in fact most of the world (including the US) owes them money… They blatantly steal other peoples technology and nobody does anything about it (probably due to the fact that they are our bankers)… They have a worse human rights record then anyone, apart from maybe the USSR under Stalin or Nazi Germany… They have the largest military in the world which is being re-equipped with state of the art equipment, and transformed into a trained professional force… you’re right, nothing to be worried about.

      • blight

        It is a monster created by our collaboration with the PRC (and the ROC, which provided the capital and generally owns a large fraction of those sweatshops)

    • ONTIME

      That’s the kind of thinking that gets good people killed…we are not perfect but those of us who have confronted known enemys understand the peril.

  • J Hughes

    Noooo DT, you drank the Kool-Aid! Seriously go over to SpaceDaily and read Morris Jone’s article on WHY THE X-37B IS NOT SPYING ON THE CHINESE.

  • Lance

    Good they can shoot it down too then LOL.

    • bob

      Yup, you’re an idiot. ;)

      • Lance

        Don’t know a Joke when you hear one?

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          Yes we do. That’s why we’re not laughing.

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen

  • Kotch

    Thats the problem with blogs. You have one careless story seconded by another blogger and so on

    • nraddin

      That’s also the advantage of blogs though. Decentralization means that things that might not be carried or reported on otherwise make their way into blogs. Essentially they are using the internet for what is was intended, decentralized unreliable network nodes, operating as a group but independently.

  • J Hughes

    The Brits are just as bad at fact checking as our American media, Ive noticed.

  • Tim

    Let’s face it… Nobody is going to snoop on a spacelab in orbit that they can’t readily do it on the ground either through human intel or hacking into the control station’s computers (although it’s not easy).

    One just can’t help but love the X37-B and the “cult-like” movement it created among “watchers”… :)

  • Brian Black

    If the Americans want to spy on China’s Tiangong-1, surely it would be far less conspicuous if Obama were to simply teleport into the as yet unmanned space station and just have a look around.

  • itfunk

    Does a week go by without DT trying to invent some reason why the X37B means our space program isn’t just pathetic ?

    Now we have the ability to peer enviously at the Chinese.

  • jamesb

    Best thing they can do is make anotherone …..
    Bigger and put American’s BACK into space….

    • steve

      more intrested in the fate of the british military than what the yanks are up to

  • Kski

    Say hello to the fourth front of a future war with the Chicoms. Control of the space equals control over everyone’s satellites. It is important we as a powerful country keep the PRC from designing more advanced anti satellite weapons and design our own.

  • Uncle Bill

    I have limited experience with orbital mechanics. But even so I immediately rejected this story as nonsense. What was the mission? To sneak aboard and short sheet the bunks? Tack weld a latch shut on the hatch?

    • crackedlenses

      I’d be more interested in raiding the pantry ;)

      Seriously, I would bet that spying would be for the purpose of seeing what kind of stuff the Chinese are hiding on there. Considering the world atmosphere, I really don’t trust that the Chinese aren’t going to do rather impolite things covertly. And for the record, I expect us to do no less….

    • Jim

      First you have to find out how to by-pass their alarm system on the doors and windows………..

    • m167A1

      “tack weld the hatch shut…” ROFL…

      The possibilities are ENDLESS…..

      Tape a chewbacca pic to the outside of one of the view ports…

  • RotaryWingUH1H

    Speaking strictly about the smaller satellites in this article, these may be physically small platforms but with newer technologies they can be very large and heavy duty working platforms for many different things, not only for aerial photography. They can make up a very fast and efficient network for all types of electronic communications and surveillance. Point to point, worldwide and anything in between. Navigation controlling and monitoring. I would love to be working on these myself.

  • mi1400

    8000m/sec is sufficient to gather signal intelligence… intercepts start from 150km away and perhaps they want to appear as streaking particle/debris on chinese fuselage mounted cams.

  • Noneof yourbuisness

    This should be top secret why would they release this info if it says something about the best country in the world spying on someone which we probably are but who cares its for our benefit.

  • STemplar

    There’s an old saying, There’s little bit of lie in every truth and little truth in every line. I think that applies to this system best. I’m sure we are using it for exactly what the USAF says we are. I am also absolutely sure there are other things it can do they aren’t bothering to tell us.

  • Ben

    What happens if the X-37 surpasses its maximum endurance? Does that put a hazardous amount of stress on the spacecraft?

    • STemplar

      Probably out of fuel to maneuver to position itself properly for reentry I would think.

  • Chris

    Why answer the question other than saying NO. Then again, why ask the question in the freaking first place, and expect to get an answer. Especially one that is YES.

  • Rob

    Go Air Force.(May the “Force” be with you!

  • Larry Monske

    This is designed as a lifeboat for the ISS all astronauts are not shuttle pilots. This space plane can only return to earth since it carries re-entry fuel enough to land. It can land automatically without any pilot input. It will rescue the entire station astronaunts in one load. I dont know any way it could do anything else especially spy purposes that other satillites are designed to do.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      Where did you get the idea that the X-37 was designed as an ISS lifeboat? Are you quite sure you’re not thinking of the X-38?
      http://www.astronautix.com/craft/x37.htm http://www.astronautix.com/craft/x38.htm

      And even if the spaceframe was originally designed as a lifeboat (it wasn’t, but let’s pretend), so what? The fact that you can’t see how it could do anything else is evidence of nothing, except for your own ignorance and lack of imagination.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

  • recce1

    What spying and what spy plane is everyone talking about? There’s no espionage going on. It’s called reconnaissance which is quite legal by international law.

    A retired recon naviguesser

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      Public Relations in Intelligence Gathering 101:

      If They are doing it, it’s spying.

      If We’re doing it, it’s reconnaissance.

      Sort of like the difference between “ambush” and “prepared assault by fire”.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

      • recce1

        It’s not public relations, but rather about international law. However, our media prefers telling stories like the National Enquirer. And many people buy into it. Do you?

        I guess you didn’t understand it when I wrote I was a retired recon naviguesser. So I’ll spell it out for you. I’m a retired reconnaissance navigator with about 20 years and 10,000 hours of flight experience and I’m well schooled in both US and international law regarding the difference between reconnaissance and espionage and the possible consequences.

        I apologize if my earlier sign off went over your head.

        A politically incorrect conservative curmudgeon and former reconnaissance navigator

  • KMB

    Mr. Monske, I think you are confusing the X39 with the NASA X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) project which was cancelled years ago due to budget cuts [NASA factsheet: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/FactSheet… ]. The vehicles’ design, shape and function are different (X-38 provided seating and protection for human beings). X-39 is a DoD multi-use unmanned orbital maneuvering vehicle and responsive space/space lift capability. Regards.

    • KMB

      Aaaaaannd I really meant to type X-37, not X-39 (neither the UCAV nor nuclear powered bomber association). Sorry, apparently my fingers got their conspiracy theories crossed).

  • howard

    the X37 could release limpit type tracking modules to be with the Chinese ss.
    it could practice tracking and logging it as well.
    run prediction models of where it will be and when.
    and it’s probably the X37 is spying on everyones sats and active space gear.
    what is a system to do in space for 270+ days other than
    look around? i bet it’s pretty jammed full of recon gear.

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