China would lose access to a strategic space tracking station in Western Australia when its contract expires, the facility’s owners said, a decision that cuts into Beijing’s expanding space exploration and navigational capabilities in the Pacific region.
The Swedish Space Corp (SSC) has had a contract allowing Beijing access to the satellite antenna at the station since at least 2011.
The station is located next to an SSC satellite station primarily used by the US and its agencies, including NASA.
The Swedish state-owned company said it would not enter into any new contracts at the Australian site to support Chinese customers after its current contract expires.
However, it did not disclose when the lease runs out.
“Given the complexity of the Chinese market, brought about by the overall geopolitical situation, SSC has decided to focus mainly on other markets for the coming years,” it said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The site is owned by SSC subsidiary SSC Space Australia.
Neither the Australian government nor the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded yesterday to requests for comment.
The expansion of China’s space capabilities, which includes the growing sophistication of its Beidou navigation network, is one of the new frontiers of tension between the US and China.
Australia has a strong alliance with the US, which includes working together on space research and programs, while Canberra’s diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing have been fracturing.
China last used the Yatharagga Satellite Station, located about 350km north of Perth, in June 2013 to support the three-person Shenzhou 10 mission, which completed a series of space docking tests, SSC said.
The SSC said the current contract supports Chinese missions within its program for manned-space flights for telemetry, tracking and command services.
While ground stations have different capabilities, they can be equipped to co-ordinate satellites for civil-military global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) such as BeiDou, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo system and US-owned GPS.
China’s space program has been increasing its access to overseas ground stations in recent years as part of the expansion of its space and navigational programs.
“Generally speaking anywhere you put a GNSS monitoring ground station will improve the accuracy of positioning for that region,” said Joon Wayn Cheong, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales’ School of Electrical Engineering.
Christopher Newman, a professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University in England, said China wants to remove its dependence on GPS as part of broader plans to expand its global influence.
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