Home » Air » Air Force » X-37B Likely Spying on China’s Space Station

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

by John Reed on January 6, 2012

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.

Share |

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles January 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm

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

Reply

Guest January 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm

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

Reply

GetReal January 11, 2012 at 8:41 am

ROFLAMO – the X-37B probably has current technology onboard, meaning snapshot observations are quite possible even at 8km/sec. The X-37B doesn't have the technological limits of long duration civilian missions to deep sapce which take forever to plan, build and fly to their target. And yet some of the comet intercepts had similar speeds and angles — albeit their budget limited 15 year old technology was not expected to observe nearly as much.

( To put it in simple terms if your instruments can "see" through near vacuum for 80km then you have 20 seconds – in and out bound – to make snapshots. Assume your instrument is slow for the digital age and it takes 1/10 second per snapshot. Gee only 200 snapshots per instrument. Almost too few to make a tomographic 3D view. )

However, you are quite right in pointing out that the orbit is unsuited for constantly following daily manned operations (which don't yet exist). Perhaps you have just pointed out the obvious – there aren't many single purpose missions worth the expense. The orbit and observations of the structures of the Chinese space station being built is probably only a secondary mission.

Reply

Stan January 6, 2012 at 6:33 pm

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?

Reply

Skyepapa January 6, 2012 at 7:20 pm

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

Reply

blight January 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Some of the Salyuts had weaponry (Almaz program) and were used as clandestine spy satellites. Other than that…?

Reply

AlC January 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm

practice !

plenty of room for a laser in the back of the X-37
Doesn't need to be too strong to cripple a space vehicle.

Reply

Mike January 7, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Don't need a laser, just need to shotgun some ball bearings into it's orbit… travelling at high speed they'll just turn the station into a sieve.

Reply

AlC January 9, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Conventional kinetic weapons have all kinds of problems inherent in that environment. Gravity makes the ballistics pretty complicated so you'd have to really limit range.
Lasers don't have this problem as light is much harder to deflect with gravity. They also offer an unlimited amount of "projectiles" as they would get their energy from a solar array.

Thomas L. Nielsen January 9, 2012 at 7:53 am

The laser itself, yes. The target detection sensors and power supply, not so much. And you'd need one mofo of an extension cord….

A one-shot chemical laser of useful power levels might (might!) be squeezed into the X-37 payload bay together with it's targeting sensors, but the utility of such a device is questionable. Especially when alternatives (such as the BB's suggested by Mike, or maybe a modified Sidewinder) are available.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen
Luxembourg

Reply

GetReal January 11, 2012 at 8:54 am

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.

Reply

Dude January 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Interesting; speculative at best.

Reply

JonhB January 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm

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

Reply

Mike January 7, 2012 at 2:16 pm

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.

Reply

blight January 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm

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)

Reply

ONTIME January 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm

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.

Reply

J Hughes January 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

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.

Reply

Lance January 6, 2012 at 11:42 pm

Good they can shoot it down too then LOL.

Reply

bob January 7, 2012 at 6:11 am

Yup, you're an idiot. ;)

Reply

Lance January 7, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Don't know a Joke when you hear one?

Reply

Thomas L. Nielsen January 11, 2012 at 5:23 am

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

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen
Luxembourg

Reply

Kotch January 7, 2012 at 5:17 am

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

Reply

nraddin January 7, 2012 at 1:45 pm

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.

Reply

J Hughes January 7, 2012 at 8:04 am

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

Reply

Tim January 7, 2012 at 11:47 am

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"… :)

Reply

Brian Black January 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

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.

Reply

itfunk January 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm

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.

Reply

jamesb January 7, 2012 at 2:26 pm

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

Reply

steve January 7, 2012 at 2:44 pm

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

Reply

Kski January 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm

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.

Reply

Uncle Bill January 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm

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?

Reply

crackedlenses January 7, 2012 at 7:04 pm

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….

Reply

Jim January 11, 2012 at 11:15 am

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

Reply

m167A1 July 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm

"tack weld the hatch shut…" ROFL…

The possibilities are ENDLESS…..

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

Reply

RotaryWingUH1H January 7, 2012 at 9:57 pm

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.

Reply

mi1400 January 8, 2012 at 2:47 am

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.

Reply

Noneof yourbuisness January 8, 2012 at 5:24 am

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.

Reply

STemplar January 8, 2012 at 11:37 am

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.

Reply

Ben January 8, 2012 at 10:08 pm

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

Reply

STemplar January 9, 2012 at 12:35 am

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

Reply

Chris January 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm

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.

Reply

Rob January 10, 2012 at 11:52 am

Go Air Force.(May the "Force" be with you!

Reply

Larry Monske January 10, 2012 at 7:05 pm

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.

Reply

Thomas L. Nielsen January 12, 2012 at 2:30 am

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

Reply

recce1 January 10, 2012 at 11:41 pm

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

Reply

Thomas L. Nielsen January 11, 2012 at 11:36 am

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
Luxembourg

Reply

recce1 January 15, 2012 at 4:12 am

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.

Regards.
A politically incorrect conservative curmudgeon and former reconnaissance navigator

Reply

KMB January 12, 2012 at 8:56 am

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.

Reply

KMB January 12, 2012 at 9:22 am

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).
:^)

Reply

howard January 13, 2012 at 1:56 pm

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.

Reply

Thomas L. Nielsen January 11, 2012 at 2:09 am

The fact that lasers have "unlimited ammunition" is an oft repeated oversimplification (i.e. not true).

First off, power supply: For a weapons grade laser, what size solar arrays would be needed? Do the maths, then get back to us (hint: they'll be friggin' huge. As in "target"). For a weapons grade laser, you need something like a nuclear reactor. And the power output of that reactor will limit the rate of fire of the laser.

Next, efficiency. Lasers are not 100% efficient, especially not at the power levels we're talking about here. So every discharge creates waste heat. With no air or other fluids in space, how do you loose this heat, to avoid melting down your spacecraft? Radiate it away. That either takes a very long time, or requires some monster heat radiators (again: "target").

Lasers certainly have their place as space weaponry, but they're not the do all, en all. And they're not "infinite fire" weapons.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen
Luxembourg

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: