The USA has always been wary of China’s ambitions in space and I believe it’s mostly for all the wrong reasons. Sure I can understand that the fact that China’s space division is basically a wing of its military might be cause for concern, but the same could be said for the fact that the USA’s Department of Defense’s budget for space exploration exceeds that of NASA’s. Indeed the USA is worried enough about China’s growing power in space and other industries that there’s already been speculation that it could spark another space race. Whilst this would be amazing for a space nut like myself I really wouldn’t wish that kind of tension on the world, especially when the USA is struggling as much as it is right now.
Of course that tension is enough to spark all sorts of other speculation, like for instance the true nature of the mysterious X-37B’s mission. It’s payload bay suggested that it was capable of satellite capture, an attribute shared by it’s bigger cousin the Shuttle, but its previous orbits didn’t put it near anything and it didn’t really have enough delta-v capability to be able to intersect with anything outside a few degrees of its own orbit. However since then there’s been a couple launches and one of them is smack bang in the X-37B’s territory.
The craft in question is none other than China’s Tiangong-1.
Yesterday the BBC ran an article that speculated that the USA was using the X-37B to spy on Tiangong-1. Now initially I dismissed this as pure speculation, there are far easier ways for the USA to spy on a satellite (like using one of their numerous other satellites or ground based dish arrays) than throwing their still experimental craft up in a chase orbit. However checking the orbital information for both Tiangong-1 and the X-37B shows that they do indeed share very similar orbits, varying by only 0.3 of a degree in inclination and having pretty similar apogees and perigees. Figuring this is the future and everything should be a few Google searches away from certainty I set about finding out just how far apart these two satellites actually are to see if there was some possibility of it being used to spy on China.
To do this I used 2 different tools, the first being n2yo.com a satellite tracking website. This site allows you to input the satellites you want to track and then displays them on a Google map. Once I have that I can then use another tool, this time from findpostcode.com.au which shows me the distance between two points (which thankfully also takes into account the fact the earth isn’t flat). So firstly here’s a picture of the two orbits overlapped:
So as you can see they do indeed share very similar orbits but there does seem to be an awful lot of distance between them. Just how much distance? Well the second picture tells the full story:
Just over 14,000KM which is greater than the diameter of the earth. What this means is that if the X-37B was being used to spy on Tiangong-1 it would have to peer through the earth in order to see it, something which I’m pretty sure it isn’t capable of. Also if you look at the first picture you’ll also notice that Tiangong-1 actually passes over the USA as part of its normal orbital rotation, putting it well within the purview of all the ground observations that they have control of. I’ll note that the distance between Tiangong-1 and the X-37B won’t remain constant, but they will spend a good portion of their lives apart. Enough so that I don’t believe it would be particularly useful for reconnaissance. Additionally unless the USA knew which orbit that Tiangong-1 was going to use (possible, but we’re getting deeper into conspiracy territory here) then technically Tiangong-1 launched onto the X-37B’s orbit and not the other way around (it has not changed its orbit since the second launch, unlike it did the first time).
Honestly the idea that the USA was using the X-37B was definitely an interesting prospect but in reality there’s really no justification apart from conspiracy theory-esque hand waving. The USA has far better tools at their disposal to spy on China’s fledgling space industry than a single run experimental craft that’s only on its second flight. The orbits also put them at a fair distance apart for a good chunk of the time (as far as I can tell, at least) as well making it even less likely that the X-37B is being used for spying. Still it was an interesting idea to investigate, as is most things to do with the ever mysterious X-37B.
Debris in orbit are becoming one of the greatest challenges that we face as we become a space fairing species. You see by the simple fact that something is in orbit means that it has an incredible amount of potential energy, zipping around the earth at Mach 25 ready to wreck anything that might cross its path. Thankfully there’s quite a lot of empty space up there and we’re really good at tracking the larger bits so it’s usually not much of an issue. However as time goes by and more things are launched into orbit this problem isn’t going to get any better, so we need to start thinking of a solution.
Problem is that recovery of space junk is an inherently costly exercise with little to no benefits to be had. A mission to recover a non-responsive satellite or other spacecraft is almost as complex as the mission that launched said object in the first place, even more so if you include humans in the equation. Additionally you can’t send up a single mission to recover multiple other missions as typically satellites are on very different orbits, done so that they won’t collide with each other (although that has happened before). Changing orbits, known as a plane change, is extremely expensive energy wise and as such most craft aren’t capable of changing more than a couple degrees before their entire fuel supply is exhausted. The simple solution is to deorbit any spacecraft after its useful life but unfortunately that’s not the current norm and there’s no laws governing that practice yet.
It’s even worse for geostationary satellites as in that particular orbit things don’t tend to naturally deorbit over time. Instead anything in a geostationary orbit is pretty much going to be there forever unless some outside force acts on them. Geostationary orbits are also particularly valuable due to their advantageous properties for things like communication and location so the problem of space debris up there is of a much bigger concern. Thankfully most geostationary satellites have the decency to move themselves into a graveyard orbit (one just outside geostationary which will eventually see them flung from earth orbit) but this method isn’t guaranteed. Mass that’s already in orbit is incredibly valuable however and DARPA has been working on a potential solution to debris in geostationary orbit.
The DARPA Phoenix program is an interesting idea, in essence a in orbit salvager that cannibalizes other satellites’ parts in order to create new “satlets”. These new satlets won’t be anywhere near as capable as their now defunct donors were but they do have the potential to breathe a whole lot of life back into the hardware that’s just sitting there idle otherwise. Compared to a regular geosynchronous mission something like Phoenix would be quite cheap since a good chunk of the mass is already up in orbit. Such a mission can really only be done in geostationary orbit since all the satellites are in the same plane and the energy required to move between them is minimal. That is our most valuable orbit however so such a mission could prove to be quite fruitful.
Dealing with the ever growing amount of space debris that we have orbiting us is a challenge that we’ve still yet to answer. Programs like DARPA’s Phoenix though are the kinds of projects we’ll need to both reduce the amount of orbital junk we have as well as making the most out of the stuff we’ve already put up there. I’m really keen to see how the Phoenix project goes as it’d would be quite a step forward for on orbit maintenance and construction as well as being just plain awesome.