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US 'Space Warplane' Spying On Chinese Spacelab 158

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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 06, 2012 @12:01PM (#38610322)

    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 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.

  • 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.

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

    For a plethora of socioeconomic reasons.

  • 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: []

    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.


  • 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 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.

  • 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 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...

  • 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 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.

panic: kernel trap (ignored)