US drone designed to spy on China's space program, analysts suggest

US drone designed to spy on China's space program, analysts suggest

The X-37B spaceplane at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California after its 220-day maiden voyage.

Chinese analysts have suggested that the US Air Force's Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an unmanned space vehicle capable of runway landings, is designed to monitor China's Tiangong 1 space station, reports the People's Daily.

The British Interplanetary Society's Spaceflight magazine in early 2012 questioned whether the spaceplane had a secondary reconnaissance role of spying on China's manned space program in addition to its stated purpose of testing "vehicle capabilities and proving the utility and cost-effectiveness of a reusable spacecraft," as USAF spokeswoman Tracy Bunko explained to Reuters last year.

Brian Weeden, a retired USAF analyst is unconvinced by the claim the X-37B is being used to spy on China, pointing out the different orbits of the two spacecraft and the speed at which they intersect preclude any practical surveillance fly-bys.

Even if the spacecraft is not being used eavesdrop on the Tiangong 1 as the US defense department and observers say, some in China remain suspicious it could in the future be used against them.

Professor Li Daguang from China's National Defense University believes the spaceplane is aimed at a potential conflict with China in or from space and professor Wang Mingzhi from the PLA Air Force Command School stated the X-37B and X-51A WaveRider scramjet are both designed to strengthen the US's global force projection capability. With these new technologies, the US might in the future be able to attack Chinese targets from or in space, he says.

The US defense department denies the spacecraft is designed as a weapons platform. Others have commented that it is too small to usefully carry weapons.

Shi Yinhong of Beijing's Renmin University said that the US's anxiety over the rapid development of China's space programs is spurring Washington to maintain its domination of space. For this reason, some observers in China might reasonably connect the X-37B's development to the Tiangong 1 spacelab.