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US 'Space Warplane' Spying On Chinese Spacelab 158

Posted by Soulskill
from the it-is-now-the-future dept.
PolygamousRanchKid sends this excerpt from El Reg: "The U.S. Air Force's second mysterious mini-space shuttle, the X-37B, could be spying on China's space laboratory and the first piece of its space station, Tiangong-1. Amateur space trackers told the British Interplanetary Society publication Spaceflight that the black-funded spaceplane seemed to be orbiting the Earth in tandem with Tiangong-1, or the Heavenly Palace, leading the magazine to speculate that its unknown mission is to spy on [the lab]. ... The lab is unmanned for the moment, so all there'd be to study is the technology of the craft and what experiments it's doing. Still, the U.S. is hugely suspicious of China's space endeavors, so it's more than possible that they'd want to get a look at Tiangong-1 just in case it's doing anything unexpected." Update: 01/06 21:50 GMT by S : Further calculations have shown that this is not the case after all.
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US 'Space Warplane' Spying On Chinese Spacelab

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    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well now i know that they rhymed "masses" with "masses"

      I always thought I was hearing it wrong.

  • by Anonymous Coward

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

    Tian-dong-1 and the second X-37B both spotted something else in space and went to have a look at it. This is the real story here. 2012 will be the end of us all.

    • by Evil.Bonsai (1205202) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:14PM (#38610480)

      I just checked heavens-above and they don't really seem to be all that close. Orbits are SIMILAR but not all that close.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:01PM (#38610324)

    Anyone who has read "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Heinlein knows that being able to own space means an unparalleled strategic advantage.

    • by taiwanjohn (103839) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:13PM (#38610460)

      The operative word here is "ground", and even that is not much use without a suitable energy source. In Heinlein's book, the earth is pummeled by "cargo" loads of moon rocks launched from a giant rail-gun on the moon. There would be little advantage in "pre-launching" a space station full of ordnance over the more traditional method of using ICBMs for delivery. Unlike an airplane, you can't just "drop" a bomb from a space station.

      • by EvilBudMan (588716) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:48PM (#38610854) Journal

        Actually, if you could gain even one second over your enemy there would be a reason. If it's in LEO then one of those things loaded up with tungsten rods would have a devastating conventional attack with just a slight push in the right direction. Kinetic energy weapons would work like that. Nukes, I don't see why they would really do that and either way it's not something that has to be manned.

        I would also say that bringing foreign countries satellites back for inspection was why Nixon went with the shuttle which could never go high enough to fulfill that mission but now the Air Force has a relatively cheap space plane that could do that and bring it back. On a coolness scale from 1 to 10 it's an 11.

        • by joh (27088)

          I would also say that bringing foreign countries satellites back for inspection was why Nixon went with the shuttle which could never go high enough to fulfill that mission but now the Air Force has a relatively cheap space plane that could do that and bring it back. On a coolness scale from 1 to 10 it's an 11.

          A wet dream that won't achieve more than soiled pants.

          Even if the satellite/craft won't have a self-destruction charge (soviet satellites were known to have these) grappling and storing anything that isn't prepared for that and will have fuel and RCS engines is just madness. And then the payload capacity of this puny spaceplane isn't enough for more than a microsat even without thinking of what the grappling, storing and securing devices would take up.

          • Well it is a test plane. The next one will be larger. I think the Chinese are watching us since we launched first. We could just use this thing to put a bomb on every potential enemy satellite. It's currently large enough for that, but who cares if you bring all of it back. This thing could easily have a saw in the back. The next one will open from the front an swallow. It will be just like it disappeared. Maybe it has lasers?

        • by Solandri (704621)

          If it's in LEO then one of those things loaded up with tungsten rods would have a devastating conventional attack with just a slight push in the right direction. Kinetic energy weapons would work like that.

          The problem is, it costs on the order of $5k-$10k to put a single kg of payload into LEO. A Mk82 500 lb bomb costs $270 and delivers 440 MJ of energy. To get that much energy out of a similar-cost tungsten rod weighing 50 grams, it would have to be moving at 132 km/sec, nearly 20x faster than LEO veloc

          • Well it would probably only be for very deep bunkers. OK put one higher up and give it a push. The moon would be the perfect place for something like this. A Mk82 with a laser JDAM kit would even be cheaper probably. Isn't China planning to go to the moon? Also, if we fought a worthy opponent GPS may not help us.

            We really haven't had anyone capable of beating us in an all out war for over 60 years now even though we lost a few for political reasons, it wasn't because our military capability but more to do w

      • There would be little advantage in "pre-launching" a space station full of ordnance over the more traditional method of using ICBMs for delivery. Unlike an airplane, you can't just "drop" a bomb from a space station.

        Actually you can, for sufficiently large definitions of "space station." A SLICBM does sessionally that - launches a bus into orbit containing some bombs - that it then aligns with its target and drops one. if you had some in relatively stable long term orbits you could launch a strike with very little warning - is it a meteor or is it a bomb. The down side is it could lead to an accidental counter-strike if someone thought a meteor was a bomb re-entering. IFIRC, the idea of orbiting bombs was bandied about

      • Unlike an airplane, you can't just "drop" a bomb from a space station.

        Duh, you blow up planets with your giant freaking laser beam from you airquote Death... Star... airquote.

    • by Intropy (2009018)

      In that book they drop rocks from the Moon to the Earth.

      1. Turn the chemical energy in rocket fuel into kinetic energy using rocket engines.
      2. Turn kinetic engine into gravitation potential energy by orbiting.
      3. Turn gravitational potential energy into kinetic energy by deorbiting and falling.
      4. Turn kinetic energy into heat et. al. by colliding with target.

      That's pretty inefficient. It's the equivalent of shooting a bullet by aiming upwards and getting the bullet to fall on your target. You can just skip s

      • by jpapon (1877296)
        i think the strategic advantage is gained by having a weapon that can hit the enemy, which the enemy is (I'm assuming) unable to destroy. To follow your analogy, it would be more like floating a gun platform up on a balloon. Sure, it's less efficient than just shooting someone, but it also means that your enemy is constantly in danger of being shot, and there's not a damn thing they can do about it.

        Regardless, MAD makes this all kind of pointless. Shooting moonrocks at someone does little to prevent them

      • The advantage of being in space in Heinlein's books comes from the fact that it's hard for people to shoot back. If you're on the Earth's surface, almost anywhere, with modern weapons it's as easy for the enemy to strike at you as it is for you to strike at them. If one side is on the moon and the other side is on Earth, then it's asymmetric because it takes a lot more energy to move a rock from the Earth to the Moon than vice versa (compare the first stage of the Saturn V to the LEM).

        Having a moon bas

  • by GameboyRMH (1153867) <gameboyrmh@gmail.cCOBOLom minus language> on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:02PM (#38610330) Journal

    After doing the first fly-around to see if it had any titanium orbital bombardment rods or nuclear missiles strapped onto it, they've since been watching it carefully to see if the empty space station module will transform into some kind of giant gun or fighting robot..or at least unfurl a communist flag or something.

  • Ho-hum... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by taiwanjohn (103839) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:05PM (#38610368)

    Rival countries spying on each other's technology... what else is new? According to TFA the X37-B launched before Tiangong, and later shifted its orbit to track the Chinese station. If true, that would be an impressive trick.

    • Re:Ho-hum... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Hadlock (143607) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:14PM (#38610478) Homepage Journal

      The more impressive trick is that it's way, way past it's total mission time, and was scheduled to come down around thanksgiving. It's now almost 2 months past it's original planned mission. And yeah, it did change it's orbit, back in May or so. Pretty much everyone wants to know what's going on in North Korea and Iran, and apparently you can photograph both from the orbit that Tiandong is in.
       
      More info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-37 [wikipedia.org] skip down to the operational history part.

      • The more impressive trick is that it's way, way past it's total mission time, and was scheduled to come down around thanksgiving. It's now almost 2 months past it's original planned mission.

        That's only impressive if it's deliberate... otherwise it has become just another piece of space junk.

    • Re:Ho-hum... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Baloroth (2370816) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:21PM (#38610588)
      Actually, from what I could gather of the BBS article it looks like the Tiangong matched the X37-B's orbit, not the other way around (the X037 was launched to 300km at an inclination of 42.79 from the equator. The Tiangong's altitude was "similar", and an orbital inclination of 42.78). There was some speculation in the first article that the X-37 was reprogrammed to look at the Tiangong, but there is absolutely no way that was its original mission. The facts are more in line with the Chinese spying on the American mission, actually, but that is extremely unlikely given the rather more permanent nature of the space station. Most likely? Both were put in that orbit for the same reason: to keep an eye on the Middle East, which is of interest to everyone.
    • by gfxguy (98788)

      Rival countries spying on each other's technology...

      From the summary: "Still, the U.S. is hugely suspicious of China's space endeavors"

      They may actually want to spy on us! Shame on them!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:05PM (#38610372)

    Not going to get into too many details, but if you look at the orbits of the objects, they are not in the correct positions for OTV to get a good look at Tiangong. Why not get into details? Because the folks that understand this already know. And the people that don't understand what an RAAN is will probably just continue to believe these stories.

    • by Sez Zero (586611) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:20PM (#38610574) Journal

      Exactly. TFA puts it thusly:

      "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.

      There's nothing the US would want to look at in the Middle East, right? If it catches side glances at a Chinese space station, that's just gravy.

      The article does end on a winner:

      Wilder theories have also reared their heads, such as that both Tiangong-1 and the second X-37B spotted "something else" in space and went to have a look at it - but that seems a little bit like wishful thinking from ET-loving dreamers.

      Yup, that's totally it. I can see Michael Bay's next screenplay forming...

      • by kid_wonder (21480)

        Yup, that's totally it. I can see Michael Bay's next screenplay forming...

        Quick, grab a spoon (tablespoon) and gently push it under your eyeball as you pull your eyelid away. once you are in just pop the sucker out, then just cut the optic nerve. Repeat on your other eye.

        Whew! Now you don't have to see horrible things like that anymore.

    • by tunapez (1161697)

      And the people that don't understand...

      Or, hopefully if not eventually, they will disbelieve b/c the Drama Theater speculations projected by our entertaining news sources is a broken record and has a track record for baselessness and inanity. Fear this! Watch them! The sky is falling!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:07PM (#38610400)

    For a plethora of socioeconomic reasons.

    • by steelfood (895457)

      As it exists right now, countries are just trying to keep pace with each other. The first space race bankrupted the U.S.S.R. Are you sure you want to be involved in a second one?

  • by Ritz_Just_Ritz (883997) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:09PM (#38610426)

    Keep in mind that China's recently launched aircraft carrier was ostensibly purchased from the Ukraine to be a "floating casino" in Macau. For an entertaining recap of how they got the ship, see the wikipedia article here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_aircraft_carrier_Varyag [wikipedia.org]

    While public deception is certainly not unique to China, I think most people would agree that their military aspirations are more opaque than most people think.

    Best,

    • by tokul (682258) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:30PM (#38610688)

      Keep in mind that China's recently launched aircraft carrier

      If you have one missile cruiser with carrier capability and your enemy has 10 super carriers, you have zero carriers.

      • If you have one missile cruiser with carrier capability and your enemy has 10 super carriers, you have zero carriers.

        Aside from the US, there are a couple medium and a few smaller carriers and no large carriers in the world (last I checked, the carrier-borne combat force of the US Marine Corps was larger than every carrier-borne force outside the US combined, without even looking at the US Navy proper.) This makes medium -- and even smaller -- carriers extremly useful for power projection against any nation

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        You should probably have a closer look [bbcimg.co.uk] at the thing. Pretty damn close to a Nimitz, isn't it?

    • Cool a casino in space with rich Chinese funding trips to play "Texas Hold Em". Maybe they are getting into space tourism. I just wanna see the cards dealt.

      • Just add an online game server to the space station, then people could play without the tourism bit.
        • Well, that would remove the money and the face to face that you would get. Poker is much different without a server. Real high rollers wouldn't go for that option.

  • by TwineLogic (1679802) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:11PM (#38610446)
    This is detente in action. When China shot and destroyed their weather satellite FY-1C, they knew the debris from it would threaten the International Space Station. The FY-1C was in an orbit which left the debris at a hazardous altitude, threatening the US/Russian station.

    If the US is following the Chinese station using X37-B, this may be to observe it. On the other hand, it may be a demonstration that we could destroy their station with a precision strike, thus they should not expend any more satellites in an attempt to shotgun our station.

    This is an episode in our cold war with China.
    • by gtall (79522)

      Or it just could be, as The Register suggested, a way to keep an eye on Iran and Afghanistan and WTFistan, given it's orbit. If you wanted to observe the Chinese Golden Spittoon or whatever their box is called, you could do it much cheaper without using the fancy new space vehicle.

  • Bogus Headline (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:16PM (#38610512)

    I'm not sure why this keeps getting posted around the internet as spying on China... the article makes it pretty clear that:

    a) There's plenty of other ways to spy on China's station.
    b) The space station was launched well after the X-37B.
    c) The orbit and inclination of the X-37B implies that it is testing sensors over the Middle-East.
    d) Is it really that important to have a dedicated satellite to spy on China's space station? It's not even manned right now.

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:20PM (#38610576)

    One would think ground based telescopes would be just as good and more stealthy. These things are designed to look at distant stars. One would think they could get excellent resolution on a satellite.

    Maybe I'm wrong... I won't claim to be an expert. It just seems we have a lot of hardware pointed skyward and collectively it should be able to keep tabs on anything in low earth orbit.

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:21PM (#38610586)

    It's NASA's creative workaround for R&D budget cuts.

  • by nimbius (983462) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:31PM (#38610696) Homepage
    or any other "axis of evil" power for that matter can do in the wake of american foreign policy and dominionism is to be peaceful. if iran's nuclear program never moves beyond nuclear fuel for reactors, and chinas space aspirations remain seated in the exploration of the cosmos, then america is left without a boogeyman for the immediate future.
  • by Cragen (697038) on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:49PM (#38610872)
    In the article, for pete's sake, the "expert to be quoted today", "Brian Weedon, a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation and former orbital analyst with the USAF, " , actually IN THE FSCKING ARTICLE says, ""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. [Emphasis mine.] 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," he added. "

    Jeez, would it hurt the submitter too much to actually read to the END OF THE FREAKING ARTICLE? Headline-hunting much?

    • I think the fact that their orbits intersect every now and again - that's just a co-incidence.

      That's not a coincidence. That's how orbital mechanics work. Every orbit intersects every other orbit at exactly two points. Imagine the orbital plane as an elliptical disk. One of it's foci will coincide with the earth's center. An intersection of two planes containing two orbits is a line. This line will go through the two intersections between the orbits, at which both orbiting objects will pass through the same

  • By the same argument you could say that all the geosynchronous satellites are running in tandem with each other, so they must be spying on each other. While it is possible, I'd say a more likely reason is that whatever the two of them are doing up there, they are observing the same areas around the world.
  • The Chinese spacecraft is spying on the US spacecraft? China would never spy on us!
  • That 'US warplane' isn't spying, it's doing pizza delivery. Domino's. 30 orbits or less, or your pizza's free...
  • Still, the U.S. is hugely suspicious of China's space endeavors

    Should read

    Still, the U.S. is hugely suspicious of Everyone's endeavours

    That's what happens when you let the terrorists scare you into giving up your rights and letting the war-drum beaters take over the country.

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