The USAF's X-37B Secret Space Plane Appears to Be Tracking China's New Space Station

The X-37B, Pre-Flight

USAF

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.