Photo: Air Force
Responding to a report in Spaceflight magazine, Jonathan Amos at the BBC reports the U.S. Air Force’s classified X-37B spaceplane is likely spying on China.Launched into orbit last March, the X-37B had its trip extended nine months in December without any explanation, leading to endless speculation about the ship’s mission.
Amateur space trackers have concluded that the X-37B is closely following the path of the Chinese spacelab, Tiangong-1. China has been reaching into space at breakneck speeds as the U.S. resigns its program to the sidelines.
Spaceflight’s editor Dr. David Barker says, “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.”
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.
Barker believes the similarities between the X-37B and the Tiangong-1 are too extensive to dismiss, and given the deep suspicion of China’s space program, many find it easy to believe.
Not everyone is convinced, but given the classified status of the spaceplane, speculation is sure to continue.
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