Is the X-37B space plane spying on China?

Posted by Trent Nouveau

A new report indicates that the X-37B - a top-secret space plane operated by the US Air Force - may be spying on China.

The X-37B was lofted into orbit some 10 months ago. Although the Pentagon has understandably remained tight-lipped over its mission, Spaceflight editor David Bakee speculates the plane could in fact be monitoring Beijing’s new space station/lab, the Tiangong-1.

Is the X-37B space plane spying on China?
"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," Baker told the BBC.

"The parallels with X-37B are clear. With a period differential of about 19 seconds, the two vehicles will migrate toward or against each other, converging or diverging, roughly every 170 orbits."

According to Baker, monitoring the space lab might not be such a bad idea for the United States and its NATO allies.

"As with the Cold War, the proliferation of space surveillance systems enabled us to get arms agreements that would not have been possible without each side knowing fully what the other side was doing,” he added. 

However, Brian Weeden, a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation and a former orbital analyst with the USAF, believes the X-37B is more likely tracking ongoing events in the volatile Middle East and Afghanistan.

"A typical spy satellite is in a polar orbit, which gives you access to the whole Earth. [Now], the X-37B is in a much lower inclination which means it can only see a very narrow band of latitudes, and the only thing that's of real interest in that band is the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"Is it spying on Tiangong-1? I really don't think so. I think the fact that their orbits intersect every now and again - that's just a co-incidence. If the US really wanted to observe Tiangong, it has enough assets to do that without using X-37B."

The Boeing X-37 (also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle) is typically described as an unmanned vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing (VTHL) spaceplane. The X-37B variant is capable of remaining in orbit for up to 270 days at a time.