Here at PopSci we don't like to spread rumors. And that's how I generally like to start off a post wherein I intend to propagate some kind of hearsay rooted mostly in speculation. Hearsay like this: America's X-37B spaceplane, the shuttle-like unmanned robotic orbiter that the Air Force put into orbit for the second time back in March, is probably (possibly) spying on China's Tiangong-1 space station.
At least, that's what we heard. Specifically, that's what the Web is hearing today via Spaceflight magazine, which is reporting that the X-37B currently circling the globe is in an orbit that closely mimics that of China's experimental space station. And given the fact that many in the space community--including the U.S. Air Force, owners of the X-37B--are somewhat wary of China's space ambitions, who are we to say that Spaceflight mag is wrong?
First, the facts. We know that Tiangong-1--which was launched back in September and is slated to host a manned crew sometime later this year--is in an orbit with an inclination of 42.78 degrees at an altitude of roughly 186 miles. And we know--not from the Pentagon but from a group of vigilant amateur space trackers--that the X-37B is orbiting at about the same altitude and at an inclination of 42.79 degrees. Not only is that orbit strange for a military recon satellite--they usually have polar orbits that offer better access to the entire globe--but it would periodically bring the two orbiters very close together.
Of course, the leap that's being made--that the reason X-37B and Tiangong are on such similar paths is because the former is spying on the latter--is speculation entirely. The 30-foot X-37B has a cargo bay roughly akin to the interior space of a van, and there's no telling what kind of sensors or other equipment might be stowed in there. And though China has been somewhat forthcoming about Tiangong-1's mission, we can't really be sure about that either. Putting them on the same orbital path is practically a recipe for rampant speculation.
Tiangong-1 is small precursor space station China is developing as a technology testbed for the 66-ton space station it hopes to have underway by 2020 (the People's Republic recently docked a Shenzou spacecraft with Tiangong-1, showing the world just how far its on-orbit capabilities have come). But given the fact that China draws no real distinction between its civilian, science-oriented space endeavors and its military space ambitions (in fact, it was a military officer who offered the congratulatory speech to Tiangong's mission handlers after the docking), the rest of the world has reason to be wary of what's going on aboard Tiangong-1.
So is the Air Force's X-37B up there shadowing a Chinese space station, keeping an eye out for any shady, militaristic activities? We have no idea. That's just what we heard.
It would be so beautiful if the X-37B do a roll over a window and hopeful see an astronaut. Then a robotic arm comes out with a Polaroid camera on the end and takes a picture.
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
lol top gun ftw
This story was on BBC World News earlier this morning. The spying could be both ways. Or it could just be one of those things. The second flight of the X-37B went up in March as the Tiangong 1 went up in September. Intelligence could suggest the Air Force knew what orbit the station would be in and predetermined the orbit for the X-37B before the first module of the station launched. Maybe the opposite happened and Chinese Military officials gleaned the position of the spaceplane and set the station on a course for observation of the secretive spacecraft. Clandestine operations go to space. Before you know it will have kinetic exchanges between vehicles in space. Then we'll truly be in the Star Trek era, just prior to a Third World War.
Just as long as we don't "land it" in Iraq, it can do whatever it wants. Worse- just as long as the Chinese don't position their shuttle next to it and pop it into their shuttle bay.
The USA should do Russia a solid and capture their Mars satellite and return it to Earth.
Awesome idea redbull. What the story doesn't say is that when the X-37 got close to the station it saw a bumper sticker that read "unless you're a hemroid get off my ass."
If we had a space war in low earth orbit, it would be our last. There would be so much debris that we wouldn't be able to launch anything for decades, if not longer.
Science always asks "can we," but doesn't seem to ask "should we."
This: "the X-37B went up in MARCH - the Tiangong 1 went up in SEPTEMBER. Intelligence could suggest the Air Force knew what orbit the station would be in and predetermined the orbit for the X-37B" (seems unlikely - China would have been tracking the X-37B, and would then have chosen a different orbit for the station.)
Which leaves but one probable conclusion...
There's something ELSE up there, orbiting at ~42.785 degrees, that BOTH the US and CHINA have spotted, and want to get a peek at.
Let me be the first to say that I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords ('cos pretty sure the Chinese aren't sending up a diplomat!)
A little bit of snooping and testing an unmanned craft is all a good thing.
Surveillance is best left unmanned and performed remotely. Endurance in a tough and unforgiving environment.
Science allows us to see beyond our 5 senses and limited dimensions.
Religion is for those who cherish delusion and hallucinations.
Just a friendly reminder that china could not get a satellite into to proper orbit and hit the us with an ICBM until LORAL space with support from then president bill clinton and barbra boxer. Gave chine a deal to launch loral satellites. Loral of course would provide proper calibration support that the chines lacked and for security loral would cover the sensitive restricted hardware and software with a black plastic like a trash bag and the chinese promised not to look. Well guess who looked. Look for yourself if you don't believe it.
Thanks Loral and others!
hopefully this isnt a prelude to another dispute between china and the US leading to a war. which in turn would spark WW3, the end of everything. just a heads up. a lot of destruction in the coming year i sense..
"religion is like a prison for the seekers of wisdom"
I would just love to see the 37B write a "Kilroy" on the side of the Tiangong with a big sharpie. That one little effort would send a message that would scare the dickens out of the Chinese.
IEEE Spectrum has an article that the spying scenario is quite unlikely:
"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"
"Even if the Air Force had known the plans, it would have been to no avail had weather delayed the launch by a day—or even by half an hour. That’s preposterous on the face of it."
"Although the article reportedly cites amateur space trackers as the source of the orbital data, the opposite is true. On their discussion board, these trackers are debunking the article’s claims."
The author states that Spaceflight is trying to stir up controversy to increase income.
What most people do not realize from the picture in this article, we are actually looking inside the mouth of the tongue of a robotic space whale. AMAZING!
Science sees no further than what it can sense.
Religion sees beyond the senses.
"experimental space station"
what makes it experimental vs our space station. I never see that adj put in front of our space lab or the iss. but how are they different.
So were spying on the Chinese. no big surprise there. were spying on them, they're spying on us, everybody is spying on every body these days. Shoot, with how advanced malware and spybots have gotten if you have owned a computer for the last 10 years you have probably been spied on dozens of times.
I've spied on you.