Update 28 September 2014
The unmanned U.S. X-37B spacecraft is back in the spotlight again! Today’s article in the New York Post describes the X-37B as the Pentagon’s secret space drone: “Theories about its mission have ranged from an orbiting space bomber to an anti-satellite weapon… According to intelligence experts and satellite watchers who have closely monitored its orbit, the X-37B is being used to carry secret satellites and classified sensors into space — a little-known role once played by NASA’s new retired space shuttle.” That is almost as provocative as the (mistaken) allegations of covert surveillance of Chinese satellites by the X-37B back in January 2012.
In January 2012, the British Interplanetary Society miscalculated the orbital trajectory of an unmanned, ultra high-altitude U.S. space plane. Next, they inferred that the United States was spying on a recently launched Chinese satellite. Unfortunately, the BBC quickly ran with the story, publishing a glossy illustrated news report about the spying, and its plausibly dire consequences. Fortunately, the British Interplanetary Society was wrong; there was no space-to-space surveillance! The orbital planes of the X-37B and the Chinese station were completely different. Even if they came close to each other, which was unlikely, they would pass at thousands of miles an hour in different directions.
I first noticed the erroneous trajectory estimate while reading an orbital satellite bulletin board. Others were ahead of me in following the early reports, and did the bulk of the analysis, calculating the true path of the unmanned U.S. X-37B space craft, which was not even close to the Chinese satellite. I was a bit strident. Apparently, CNN heard me:
The blogosphere erupted with outrage. The spacecrafts’ orbits were too different, experts said. “INCORRECT!” tweeted @EllieAsksWhy. Ex-NASA mission controller James Oberg blogged that a well-respected British spaceflight society had committed a horrendous error.
I didn’t see this post from CNN until today. Thank you, CNN. I am honored. I truly am.