The Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed and ratified by over a hundred countries, declares that space should be a peaceful domain, free of weapons and violence. There are numerous reasons for this however the most critical of these is avoiding the horrendous plague that is Kessler syndrome, the point at which our near earth orbits are so littered with space junk that launching anything becomes next to impossible. At the same time however the lack of an overt weapons capability in space leads to all sorts of whacky theories about military operations in space, fuelled by the lack of public data on classified missions. The latest of which is the mysterious Kosmos-2499 satellite which some are theorizing is Russia’s latest anti-satellite weapon.
Kosmos-2499 attracted the attention of numerous conspiracy theorists due to it’s semi-mysterious launch. Quite often classified payloads are launched alongside regular ones in order to hide their true nature and this was the case with Kosmos-2499, launching with 3 other communications satellites (Kosmos-2496~2498). It was initially tracked as space debris since the official launch manifest only listed 3 payloads, however shortly after Roscosmos confirmed that 4 satellites were launched on that particular rocket. This makes it an interesting, although not particularly unusual, launch but its behaviour following launch is what really got the crazies whipped up.
It changed it’s orbit.
Satellites don’t typically change their orbit very much so when one does it often becomes a target of interest for stargazers. The X-37B is probably the most notable example of a satellite that was able to do this which was also a military craft although it’s orbit meant that, should it have any anti-satellite capabilities, it wouldn’t have the opportunity to use them. Kosmos-2499 is in a similar position however it was in a position to rendezvous with 2 pieces of space debris, namely the remnants of a previous launch vehicle and it’s own booster. This has then led to a flurry of speculation that Kosmos-2499 has satellite-killing capabilities ranging from things like a pellet gun to grappling arms that can detach solar panels. All things considered I think that’s a pretty unlikely scenario and the satellite’s purpose is likely a lot more mundane.
The other satellites launched alongside Kosmos-2499 were pretty small in stature, coming in at about 250kg each. It’s then highly likely that Kosmos-2499 doesn’t exceed this by much and so the capabilities that they can integrate into it a pretty limited. Also when you consider that it’s likely carrying with it a ton of propellant in order to complete these orbital transitions, including the approaches, then you’re even further limited in what kind of payload you can bring along for the ride. Most likely then Kosmos-2499 is a platform for Russia to test close approaches to other objects on orbit (I’d hazard a guess in an automated fashion) with a view to integrate such technology into future projects.
Whilst I sometimes enjoy letting the conspiracy nut part of my brain run amok on these things the truth of the matter is usually far more mundane than we’d think it to be. Doing things in space is awfully difficult and building in radical capabilities like the ones people are talking about really isn’t that feasible, or even sensible. Indeed the best counters to a military presence in space are most often ground based things that can be done far cheaper and with a lot less hassle than trying to create some kind of satellite killing space robot. Kosmos-2499 might be a bit mysterious but I doubt it’s purpose is that exotic.
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.
Whilst the Space Shuttle will always be one of the most iconic spacecraft that humanity has created it’s design was one of compromises and competing objectives. One of the design features, which influenced nearly every characteristic of the Shuttle, was the requirement from the Department of Defense that stipulated that the Shuttle needed to be able to launch into a polar orbit and return after a single trip around the earth. This is the primary reason for the Shuttle being so aeroplane like in its design, requiring those large wings so it has a long downrange capability so that it could return to its launch site after that single orbit. The Shuttle never flew such a mission, but now I know why the DoD required this capability.
It was speculated that that particular requirement was spawned out of a need to capture spy satellites, both their own and possibly enemy reconnaissance craft. At the time digital photography was still very much in its infancy and high resolution imagery was still film based so any satellite based spying would be carrying film on board. The Shuttle then could easily serve as the retrieval vehicle for the spy craft as well as functioning as a counter intelligence device. It never flew a mission like this for a couple reasons, mostly that a Shuttle launch was far more expensive than simply deorbiting a satellite and sending another one up there. There was also the rumour that Russia had started arming its spacecraft and sending humans up there to retrieve them would be an unnecessary risk.
The Shuttle’s payload bay was also quite massive in comparison to the spy satellites of the time which put further into question the DoD’s requirements. It seems however that a recently declassified spy satellite, called HEXAGON, was actually the perfect fit and could have influenced the Shuttle’s design:
CHANTILLY, Va. – Twenty-five years after their top-secret, Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine American satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17) with the unveiling of three of the United States’ most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.
“I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size,” Landis said. “Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs. The Hubble’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles (KH-9 and Hubble) would fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle.”
HEXAGON is an amazing piece of cold war era technology. It was equipped with two medium format cameras that would sweep back and forth to image an area, capturing an area 370 nautical miles wide. Each HEXAGON satellite carried with it some 60 miles worth of film in 4 separate film buckets which would detach from the craft when used and return to earth where they would be snagged by a capture craft. They were hardy little canisters too with one of them ending up on the bottom of an ocean but was retrieved by one of the navy’s Deep Submergence Vehicles. There were around 20 launches of the HEXAGON series of craft with only a single failure towards the end of the program.
What really surprised me about HEXAGON though was the resolution they were able to achieve some 30+ years ago. HEXAGON’s resolution was improved throughout its lifetime but later missions had a resolution of some 60cm, more than enough to make out people and very detailed images of say cars and other craft. For comparison GeoEye-1, which had the highest resolution camera on an earth imaging craft at the time of launch, is only just capable of a 40cm per pixel resolution (and that imagery is property of the USA government). Taking that into consideration I’m wondering what kind of imaging satellite the USA is using now, considering that the DoD appears to be a couple decades ahead of the commercial curve.
It’s always interesting when pieces of a larger puzzle like the Shuttle’s design start falling into place. Whilst it’s debatable whether or not HEXAGON (and it’s sister craft) were a direct influence on the Shuttle there’s enough coincidences to give the theory a bit of credence. I can see why the USA kept HEXAGON a secret for so long, that kind of capability would’ve been down right scary back in the 80’s and its reveal makes you wonder what they’re flying now. It’s stuff like this that keeps me obsessed about space and what we, as a species, are capable of.