Expert: U. S. Secret Space Plane Not Likely 'Spying' on China Module
By Genalyn Corocoto | January 9, 2012 10:17 AM EST
A former orbital analyst said previous reports of U. S. military's X-37B space plane spying on a prototype space module are extremely unlikely to be true.
According to Brian Weeden, a technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation and a former orbital analyst with the U. S. Air Force, the robotic X-37B space place could not possibly be surveilling China's Tiangcong 1 space laboratory as they have different orbits.
"I would go as far as to say, 'no chance,'" said Weeden. "It's not practical."
The experimental X-37B was launched for the first time by the U.S. Air Force on a classified mission in March 2011. The spacecraft is known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, or OTV-2. Meanwhile, China launched its unmanned Tiangong 1 space lab in September and is using the vessel to carry out orbital docking tests.
Observers have speculated that that the X-37B and Tiangong 1 have broadly similar orbits since both are currently about 180 miles (300 kilometers) above the Earth, with an inclination of roughly 43 degrees with respect to the equator.
However, Weeden said the orbits of the X-37B and Tiangong 1 differ by about 100 degrees in a parameter, called right ascension. This describes where a craft crosses the equator, he explained, such that the two satellites actually take disparate paths around the globe, with their orbits intersecting just twice per circuit.
Theoretically, the X-37B and Tiangong 1 could approach each other a maximum of two times per orbit, that is, is if timing works out perfectly, but with the very high speeds, it is not exact the best condition for a spy mission, Weeden said.
The X-37B, which looks like a smaller version of NASA's recently retired space shuttle, is about 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. The U. S. Air Force has repeatedly said that the space plane's primary mission is to test out new technologies.
The space plane's orbit can also explain its activities, Weeden said. The craft, which is flying repeatedly over the stretch from 43 degrees north latitude to 43 degrees south, could be using new technology to observe the Middle East and Afghanistan, he said.
Weeden also speculated that with the current mission aloft for more than 10 months, the military may be putting the vehicle through something of an endurance test.
But with regards to observations that it is conducting surveillance on China, Weeden said the the government has better information-gathering tools at its disposal than the X-37B for the job.
"The U.S. has this whole network of ground-based telescopes and radars, several of which can do imaging - either radar or optical imaging of space objects - that are better suited for this," he said.
To contact the editor, e-mail:
Most Popular Slideshows
- Taylor Swift Named Forbes' Second Highest Paid Country Musician [PHOTOS]
- Forever Lost: Indescribable Anguish for Malaysia Airlines MH17 Families, Remains of Some Victims May Never Be Found (PHOTOS)
- Global Aviation Accidents: UN to Form Safety Task Force, Gov'ts Should Share Intelligence Info to Avert Future Incidents on Flying Over Warzones (PHOTOS)
- PageSix: Beyonce & Jay Z Union is Not About Love, All About Business & the Brand
Join the Conversation
- NASA Astronomers Unearths Mysterious Signal That 'Could Not Be Explained By Known Physics' [Watch Video]
- Richard Norris' Successful Face Transplant Lands Him in GQ Cover [WATCH VIDEOS]
- Industrial Air Pollution May Help Search for Alien Life - Scientists
- Luxury Cruise: A 'Once In A Lifetime' Trip To Experience Environment Devastation in the Arctic
- Breaking Discovery: Industrial Pollution Reached South Pole by 19th Century
- Samsung Galaxy S5 Alpha Leaks Online: Release Date, Five Features to Wait for New Smart Phone
- Photos of Motorola Moto X+1 Prototype and Specs Leak Online, Release Date, Four Fresh Features Revealed
- Sony Xperia Z3: Release Date, Five Features to Expect from New Android Smart Phone
- Freshly Leaked Apple iPad Air 2 Cases Confirm Touch ID Sensor; Release Date, Limited Specs and Price Listed
- Top Surprising Features Of iOS 8
- Top 4 Reasons Why iPhone 6 Will Hit Big Soon After its Sept 2014 Release Date
- Twin Malaysia Airlines MH370, MH17 Aviation Disasters Create Phobia Among Travellers