7 January 2012
Unfortunately, it's just not true. The story provoked a sceptical response from this writer, who has reported on both Tiangong and X-37B over their lifetimes in space. It also unleashed a torrent of criticism from spaceflight boffins around the world.
The claim is a real howler. Although there has been a suitable response from inside the spaceflight community, I feel the need to add to the rebuttals of this story. It's not just a big mistake. It's a provocative and potentially damaging claim.
Why is this story wrong? For a start, there's the orbital paths of both vehicles. Basically, they don't approach each other in a way that would permit X-37B to take a proper look at Tiangong. Claims that their orbits matched closely enough to do this were made by "Spaceflight". It's just not so.
X-37B is certainly not spying on Tiangong. But can it really spy on anything at all? The X-37B is a small robotic spacecraft, roughly the size of a car. It looks like a miniature space shuttle, with wings, tailfins and a nose. It also has a small cargo bay, like its famous big brother. The first X-37B mission was launched in 2010 and stayed aloft for more than 270 days.
The second flight of the X-37B has been in orbit since March of this year, on a semi-secret mission, and shows no sign of returning to Earth yet. As this author has documented in his previous coverage of the X-37B program, the USAF is testing new technologies that have been used to build the vehicle. That's no secret.
There's also something inside the cargo bay, but details on what lies under the payload doors (which have since been opened in space) is still classified. We know that there's a solar panel that unfurls on a boom.
But there's room for other things. Some artwork of the X-37B depicts a small telescope being pointed outward, which further lends support to the "spying in space" theory.
But is this true? We don't really know. This author has previously suggested that other, less sexy items, are contained in the cargo bay. The X-37B is probably testing materials, mechanical parts, batteries and other small items to see how they withstand exposure to space.
They will be returned to Earth for examination by engineers. These parts are probably candidate components for US national security satellites, which have experienced some major breakdowns in recent years.
The secrecy of the mission has generated a lot of conspiracy theories, such as the aforementioned spy missions, or suggestions that the X-37B is a space weapon. Most unlikely!
So the X-37B is probably not really spying on anything. It's an engineering test. Conspiracy theorists should relax.
But this leads to another concept. Is the USA really spying on Tiangong 1? Yes, but not with the X-37B.
America operates an impressive group of ground-based cameras that can photograph satellites in orbit. These have almost certainly been used to observe Tiangong 1, along with just about everything else in low Earth orbit.
It's also possible that a large Keyhole-class spy satellite has been used to photograph Tiangong from elsewhere in space. Telemetry from Tiangong would have been intercepted by eavesdropping antennas on the ground and from electronic intelligence gathering satellites in higher orbits.
It should be noted that the USA has also experimented extensively with small, stealthy satellites that can be used to approach and spy on other satellites. A real spy mission would probably use this type of spacecraft, not a high-profile experimental craft that's being watched by legions of space boffins around the world.
The X-37B program has generated controversy throughout its mission. It's not surprising that the controversy is continuing. But the media needs a solid reality check on this subject.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.