A satellite ground station in the West Australian desert is being used by the Chinese military to help locate Australian and US navy warships in the region.
The explosive claim has been made by the nation's foremost expert on space-based espionage, Des Ball, who says the government may have unwittingly acted against the national interest by allowing China to use the ground station at Mingenew to track Beijing's space satellites. "This ground station would help China's space-based listening devices to more precisely locate the electronic emissions from aircraft carriers, destroyers and other navy ships," Professor Ball told The Australian. "We're talking serious stuff here . . . why was the construction of this station never announced?"
Professor Ball's claims come as US President Barack Obama today begins a two-day visit to Australia, during which he will unveil plans for closer defence ties in a move that reflects growing concerns about China's military rise in the region. The government established the satellite ground station at Mingenew, 400km north of Perth, in 2009 and gave approval for China's space agency to use the station to track Chinese satellites.
Canberra maintains all operations undertaken at the ground station, which is operated by the Swedish Space Corporation, are for "commercial and civilian activities", but Professor Ball says China makes no distinction between military and civil satellites. China's use of the station was not revealed publicly until Hong Kong's English daily the South China Morning Post quoted Xie Jingwen, a deputy chief of the tracking system for China's space program, as saying it had "added Australia to its global network of ground stations".
Canberra this week confirmed China's claim the station was used to track the Shenzhou VIII, launched this month as part of China's plan to build a space station. Professor Ball says the eight Shenzhou spacecraft launched since 1999 have a hidden military purpose and are loaded with sophisticated listening devices. In a study on China's electronic intelligence capabilities, Professor Ball, from Canberra's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, writes: "The electronic systems (of the Shenzhou spacecraft) would be able to keep track of US Navy ships, particularly carrier battle groups, operating in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans."Intercepts of electronic emissions by Shenzhou-4 during the war in Iraq in March-April 2003 would have been an intelligence windfall for the Chinese."
The ground station helps determine where the satellites are in space, which means the satellites can determine the location of the emissions they pick up from navy ships or other military targets. A spokesman for the Department of Innovation, which is responsible for space policy, said the national security implications of China using the ground station were examined before approval was given in 2009. "We have identified no national security concerns with regard to the current operations of the facilities . . . including the China satellite launch and TT&C General," the spokesman said. "The station only communicates with the satellite system that keeps the satellite in the right orbit."
China's space program uses four other international facilities to help track its satellites: in Pakistan, Kenya, Chile and Namibia. The station in Australia is the first such facility in a Western nation that is a close ally of the US. The CLTC, which uses the Mingenew station, is an arm of China's Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
The Mingenew station is part of the PrioraNet global network of strategically located ground stations that sell services to space agencies on a commercial basis. A government spokesperson said the satellite station provided valuable jobs and contracts for the Australian space industry. The Shenzhou series of spacecraft, translated as "Divine Vessel of God", spearhead China's hopes of becoming a major player in space. They have been manned, unmanned or have carried animals and test dummies. The most recent mission, Shenzhou 8, was aimed at testing rendezvous and docking methods with the Tiangong-1 space module circling above the earth's surface.
- From: The Australian
- November 16, 2011
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