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X-37B Might Not be Spying on China’s Space Station

by John Reed on January 9, 2012

So remember the Internet hubbub last week when the BBC reported that the Air Force’s X-37B space plane may well be spying on China’s new space station, Tiangong-1, since their orbits are very close? Well, it turns out that the source behind that story, Spaceflight, the magazine of the respected British Interplanetary Society ignored one key fact; the X-37B and the Chinese space station whip past each other at insanely fast speeds when their orbits intersect, points out James Oberg, a former member of the organization that came up with the claim over at Tech Talk.

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.

Both orbits are tilted to the equator at about the same amount, 43 degrees, and both fly about 300 kilometers high. But that is as far as the resemblance goes. According to aBBC account of the article, to be published this weekend in the 55-year-old journal Spaceflight, the author and all the editorial reviewers forgot one additional parameter that you need to specify relationships between orbits. This is the point on the equator where the orbit begins its pass over the northern hemisphere: in technical terms, the RAAN.

That information is readily available for the X-37B and Tiangong-1, and it show the two satellites are orbiting in nearly perpendicular planes. The difference in RAAN is about 95 degrees, and combined with their orbital inclinations, spherical trigonometry shows the two planes are tilted 60 degrees apart.

As others have noted, the X-37Bs orbit places it in a good position to spy on the Middle East. The image above shows the X-37Bs orbit in yellow and Tiangong-1’s orbit in red. Image via Tech Talk.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

crackedlenses January 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm

"X-37B Might Not be Spying on China’s Space Station"

Remind that this isn't a parody making fun of defense blogs……


Skyepapa January 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm

On a slightly tangential note: It's interesting that Sinolab's orbit carries it right over DC with every circumference…


blight January 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Well, certainly the Northeast, but it looks like New England is getting more scrutiny than DC.


kim January 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm

My first thought too….


nary January 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Perhaps its an ultra-sensitive monitor for global warming…


Lance January 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Course not this is a test craft NOT a spy plane.


Dfens January 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm

As long as the inclination is the same, the rest is just timing. Hell, it's not like it is such a damn big deal to change the inclination plane. The shuttle did it every time it went to the space station. Thanks to the "partnership" with the Russians we put the station in a 52 degree orbit instead of 23 degrees like we should have. Yeah, but why use it as a staging point for a lunar or interplanetary mission anyway? There's nothing of value on any other moons, asteroids, or planets other than Earth. NASA has already spoken on that one, and it wasn't just propaganda to cover the failures of the shuttle program or an astonishing lack of imagination, just so you know.


Thomas L. Nielsen January 10, 2012 at 2:10 am

"There's nothing of value on any other moons, asteroids, or planets other than Earth" – That was sarcasm, right? How about resources, extra living space, the possibility of life? Sounds pretty valuable to me.

"NASA has already spoken on that one…." – then NASA needs to hire smarter people, or alternatively STFU.

"….and it wasn't just propaganda to cover the failures of the shuttle program or an astonishing lack of imagination" – Yes it was.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


Dfens January 10, 2012 at 8:33 am

Yes, that was sarcasm. Though it greatly saddens me that the same agency once capable of putting a man on the moon in less than a decade has now fallen into such a sorry state.


Mister Rose January 10, 2012 at 10:33 am

Not that I'm against the manned exploration of space, but the "living space" argument is not all that strong.

Resources and living space can be made much cheaper on earth. The problem is feeding all those people up there. You would need huge gardens (0.5-1.5 acres per person depending on diet) to generate enough food to be self sufficient. Keep in mind that those gardens have to be radiation hardened and bullet proof.

Smarter terrestrial development is the solution for "living space", not space colonization.

I think we should start by having large laboratories in space (like a giant moon telescope). These labs will need a crew which will drag the rest of society (pizza hut, etc.) along with it.


ben January 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm

A better way of putting it would be "living & farming space"…

Even using every scrap of arable land and using the most efficient methods currently available, the earth can only sustain just over 8 billion people indefinitely. (the limiting factor eventually being fresh water supplies)
The population of the planet will probably exceed that number for a time by using groundwater to farm, but that ground water will eventually be drained dry.
As humanity keeps growing, eventually the only place left to go will be offworld.

Yeah building a 1acre greenhouse on mars for every person who lives there is far less efficient than farming in Kansas. But that's still 36 million extra people fed.

And that is all ignoring the benefits of having isolated breeding populations to hedge against a host of possible extinction level events that could befall the population on Earth.


Dfens January 10, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Genesis 3:19 "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

This is read at nearly every funeral I've attended. It seems so ominous in that context, but if you read it knowing that the dust of this earth was formed in the heart of some 5 generations of stars, then it reads, "for stars you are and to the stars you will return."

Thomas L. Nielsen January 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm

A further vital (literally) argument for living space in…well, Space, is spreading out. If the Human race limits itself to Earth, then we remain forever terribly vulnerable. One little K/T asteroid and POOF goes civilization as we know it.

With colonies on the Moon, Mars, in the Belt and even further out (why not?), we do much to ensure our survival as a species.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


anonimouse9 January 10, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Or Richard Branson.


gt350 January 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm

It looks to me China is flying over NV–I wounder why?


jhouse June 6, 2012 at 10:45 pm

what if it were deploying mini-satellites that could maneuver to any orbit or trajectory and do their thing and return to dock in the cargo bay virtually undetected?


jamFRIDGE January 10, 2012 at 7:42 am

You know corporations are trying to get permission to mine on the moon?


Dfens January 10, 2012 at 8:40 am

No one acts to support their own best interests. If you believed that then you'd be a capitalist — or one of those crazy dudes who wears foil hats if you listen to the military industrial complex schills on this site.


blight January 10, 2012 at 9:41 am

Why? It cost the USG ~1B per Saturn V to get there with a LEM and a buggy and two guys.


Dfens January 10, 2012 at 2:38 pm

The cost to get there is high, but the cost to stay there probably is not. Not if you can build shelters with materials native to the moon, drink water found on the moon (which is the relevance of recent experiments to find water in shadows of lunar craters at the poles), and perhaps even produce food there. The point of mining the moon is to have relatively little transfer of goods from the large gravity well of the earth to the moon and a lot of transfer of mined and refined materials from the small gravity well of the moon to earth.


crackedlenses January 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I think he's being sarcastic; understanding Dfens takes some reading between the lines ;)…..


Thomas L. Nielsen January 12, 2012 at 2:17 am

And if you factor in the cost of staying here on Earth and getting wiped out in the next major extinction event, the choice is a no-brainer IMNSHO.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


blight February 5, 2012 at 7:30 pm

How many people would you need to move to the moon for sufficient genetic diversity after the Earth gets nailed? And after that, you need to move enough infrastructure and equipment such that Moon colony is totally self-sufficient after the Earth is destroyed.

That also assumes that the apocalyptic event is one that only affects the earth, and not the earth and moon. With that logic, we will be on Mars too. Not cheap.


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