January 5, 2012
Air Force Spaceplane Could Be ‘Spying On China’
According to a report by Spaceflight, the classified X-37B U.S. Air Force spaceplane is most likely spending its time in orbit spying on China.
The X-37B launched into orbit in March of last year and has not returned to Earth yet. The Pentagon refused to discuss its mission, but amateur space trackers say its path around the globe is nearly identical to China's spacelab.
"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 told BBC.
The X-37B looks like a mini space shuttle and can glide back down through the atmosphere to land on a runway.
The spaceplane was built by Boeing and is about 30 feet long with a payload bay volume the size of a small van.
The mission was launched on an Atlas rocket and put into low orbit of a little over 186 miles up, which is unusual for a U.S. military mission.
The craft has been followed from the ground by a group of optical tracking specialists in the U.S. and Europe.
The individuals have noticed how closely the spaceplane's orbit matches China's Tiangong spacelab.
The spacelab was launched in September with an inclination of 42.78 degrees, while the X-37B sits at 42.79 degrees.
The report said that the two vehicles will migrate toward or against each other about every 170 orbits.
Other researchers said that if the Pentagon wanted to spy on Tiangong-1 it could do so without using the X-37B. They say that similarity in their flight path could just be a coincidence.
The U.S. Navy claims that the spaceplane is merely a testbed for new technologies. The X-37B is reusable and what the U.S. Air Force placed inside its payload is unknown.
China said it plans to start sending astronauts to the lab later this year, and its space program hopes to start building a 66-ton space station by about 2020.
Image Caption: An artist's conception of the X-37 Advanced Technology Demonstrator as it glides to a landing on earth. Its design features a rounded fuselage topped by an experiment bay; short, double delta wings (like those of the Shuttle orbiter); and two stabilizers (that form a V-shape) at the rear of the vehicle. Credit: NASA
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