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.
    http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/aerospace/mili

  • 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.”

    Source:
    http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/aerospace/mili

  • 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?

    • Skyepapa

      Not knowing that the answer to that question may be the reason — if it were true.

    • GetReal

      Gee does it have missile or nuclear weapon onboard? Naw unimportant.

      More realistically (since the US has considered it and in some small forms done it) – does it have an obvious biological engineering section. The US military would have concerns if there was potential for military bioweapons research as well as more hazardous peaceful programs. In the past the Chinese have been some what reluctant to have such programs on their own soil due to risk of rapid spread through their dense population if an accident occurred. But they have also openly stated that if facilities existed for which an accident would not threaten to spread across the homeland — then all bets are off on whether they would research that and use those weapons.

      Probably overly paranoid on US part for first space station. On the other hand it might take some time to get good at sticking an arm with a cellphone camera out the X-37B doors as you pass by.

  • Dude

    Interesting; speculative at best.

  • JonhB

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

  • 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.

  • Kotch

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

  • 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”… :)

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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
      Luxembourg

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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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