To space, via Australia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 November, 2011, 12:00am


The Chinese space programme can thank Ian Fitzgerald for a big favour.

The chief executive of the council in Mingenew, a rural area in Western Australia, approved the construction of a Chinese ground station on a farm called Dongara in March.

He inspected the site once and saw the facility, with a giant parabolic antenna and supporting buildings, as being no different from a dozen nearby stations operated by Nasa or the European Space Agency.

'I don't see any barbed wire or fences. Definitely no armed personnel on guard,' Fitzgerald said. 'So the facility must be run for civilian purposes. That's totally fine with us.'

The Dongara station puts a Chinese space facility in a locale long claimed by the United States for tracking American satellites, and Washington is unlikely to be pleased. The fully functioning ground station not only maintains direct communication with Chinese satellites and spacecraft in its visible sky, but decodes and encrypts the stream of information they send to earth. It tracks the whereabouts of civilian satellites and commands military ones.

Chai Jianguo, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications Technology, said political and legal barriers erected by the US had confined the expansion of Chinese ground stations to a few of the developing countries with which Beijing has good political ties. He says the US not only bans Chinese ground stations on American soil but also pressures allies to say no to China.

A US congressional report to be released this month, for example, asserts that hackers from China, possibly from the military, hijacked two US government satellites through a ground station in Norway and manipulated their operations, according to Bloomberg News. The report says the breaches were in line with Chinese military writings that advocate disabling an enemy's space systems, and particularly 'ground-based infrastructure, such as satellite control facilities'.

Chai said that Australia traditionally opened ground stations only to Nasa or the European Space Agency. The Australian government will probably feel pressure from the US for allowing China to run an operation near its facilities.

'The US shadowed us wherever we went, from Central Asia to Africa, from Europe to South America, creating trouble for us in putting up a station,' said Chai, who has been involved in the construction of several overseas ground stations for China, including a huge facility in Karachi, Pakistan. 'They definitely don't want to see us in Australia.'

The Australian embassy in Beijing did not respond to a South China Morning Post inquiry about Chinese operations at the Dongara station.

According to the website of the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), which built the Dongara station for China, the tracking station has two independent antennae with capabilities for telemetry tracking and command and data downlink services that support multiple frequency bands. The ground station had enough space, both indoors and outdoors, to allow China to ship in and set up its own equipment. Its location, only 29.2 degrees south of the equator, brings significant advantages in accessing low-inclination orbiting satellites, the company says.

SSC has served almost every leading Western space agency, including the European Space Agency and Nasa, and Japan's space programme. The company does not list China as a major customer on its website.

A senior Chinese satellite expert who was involved in preparations for the Chang'e lunar orbiter programme, said on Monday that the US was unlikely to boycott China's Dongara station. He said the White House had been taking a softer stand as China had achieved significant progress in space in recent years.

The US may even consider opening the International Space Station to Chinese vessels once China has demonstrated enough skill and experience, the expert said.

The historic docking this week of the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft and the lab module Tiangong I, for example, should bolster overseas perceptions about Chinese design and manufacturing, he said. Created by hundreds of scientists and engineers in Shanghai, the key component of the docking mechanism must withstand repeated wear and shock in an extreme environment. Its development puts China on a par with the US and Russia in terms of precision machinery, he said.

'The US needs to rely on Russia for quite some time for transporting cargoes and astronauts to the ISS after the retirement of its space shuttles,' he said. 'If China's rendezvous and docking turns out to be a success, the American officials and lawmakers may seriously consider China more as a partner than enemy.

'The Dongara ground station may create ripples in international politics, but it will eventually lead to a more harmonious world.'