Here at PopSci we don’t like to spread rumors. And that’s how I generally like to start off a post wherein I intend to propagate some kind of hearsay rooted mostly in speculation. Hearsay like this: America’s X-37B spaceplane, the shuttle-like unmanned robotic orbiter that the Air Force put into orbit for the second time back in March, is probably (possibly) spying on China’s Tiangong-1 space station.
At least, that’s what we heard. Specifically, that’s what the Web is hearing today via Spaceflight magazine, which is reporting that the X-37B currently circling the globe is in an orbit that closely mimics that of China’s experimental space station. And given the fact that many in the space community--including the U.S. Air Force, owners of the X-37B--are somewhat wary of China’s space ambitions, who are we to say that Spaceflight mag is wrong?First, the facts. We know that Tiangong-1--which was launched back in September and is slated to host a manned crew sometime later this year--is in an orbit with an inclination of 42.78 degrees at an altitude of roughly 186 miles. And we know--not from the Pentagon but from a group of vigilant amateur space trackers--that the X-37B is orbiting at about the same altitude and at an inclination of 42.79 degrees. Not only is that orbit strange for a military recon satellite--they usually have polar orbits that offer better access to the entire globe--but it would periodically bring the two orbiters very close together.