News Stories

Spying in Space

America's classified X-37B satellite, which went into orbit in March, 2011, is probably spying on China's space station (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show), Tiangong-1, which was launched in September, 2011, since its path is nearly identical to the Chinese craft--in other words, it's following it around. China plans to send astronauts to the space station in 2012 (they will need bodies to scoop up that Helium III).

In BBC News, Jonathan Amos quotes researcher David Baker as saying, "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."

This was first spotted by a group of amateur tracking specialists in the US and Europe who noticed that theX-37B was following an unusual flight path. Amos quotes Baker as saying, "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.

"If this is what the X-37B is doing, I think it really is no bad thing. 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."

But space specialist Brian Weeden doesn't think the X-37B is spying on the Chinese. Instead, he thinks the Middle East is more likely to be the target of whatever sensors the craft may be carrying.

Amos quotes him as saying, "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."

A typical spy satellite is in a polar orbit, which gives you access to the whole Earth. 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."

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