China has tracking station in Australia
China's space programme has taken another big step forward with the acquisition of its first tracking station in Australia.
Space authorities used the station in Western Australia during Tuesday's launch of Shenzhou VIII on a historic mission to dock with a target vehicle in orbit, paving the way for China's manned space station.
Tracking stations in Australia have long been a mainstay of Western space programmes, and the opening of the Chinese station in a country considered one of the closest allies of the United States also has geopolitical implications.
It is the space programme's ninth ground station and the fifth outside China. A fleet of ships also tracks spacecraft from the world's oceans.
The station at Dongara, a farm in Mingenew, Western Australia, was built by the Swedish Space Corporation and leased to Beijing, although it is believed that key components were shipped from China.
Xue Jingdong, the company's chief representative in China, said Chinese space authorities were renting the site, including buildings and equipment, from the SSC. Local Australian authorities have inspected the site and approved it.
The Swedish company, which has also worked with Nasa and the European Space Agency, was reluctant to provide details on the station, given the political sensitivity of the issue.
But mainland officials and media have been quick to talk up the importance of the Dongara station, 350 kilometres north of Perth.
Xie Jingwen, deputy chief designer of the tracking and command system for the mainland's manned space programme, said in a video on the mission's website that China had 'added Australia to its global network of ground stations'.
'Our overseas ground stations have reached five,' Xie said. 'They are located in Namibia, Malindi [Kenya], Karachi [Pakistan] and Santiago in Chile. These stations participated in the launch of Shenzhou VII manned spacecraft [in 2008]. This time we have built a new station in Australia, Western Australia.'
The state news agency called the facility cekongzhan, or tracking and command station, implying it has a full range of functions.
The European space tracking system, Estrack, operates 10 stations worldwide and uses five further commercially operated stations, including one run by SSC in Dongara, according to its website. Nasa's Near Earth Network of tracking stations has at least 12 stations, including one in Dongara.
The United States has not commented on the Chinese ground station. Some industry experts predicted the US would strongly oppose the project and exert political or even legal pressure on the Australian government to stop it. Chai Jianguo, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications Technology, said that the US would regard China's tracking operations in Australia as an intrusion into its 'home' territory. The US has kept the continent out of reach of rival states for almost half a century, he noted.
But others expect Washington to turn a blind eye because it has learnt in recent years that it cannot easily contain China's rapid expansion, in space or on Earth.