This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Launched southward, Chinese polar-orbiting reconnaissance satellites cross Antarctica and then head up the Atlantic and past South America. Only then, perhaps 40 min. after they depart their Taiyuan launch base, can U.S. radars on the islands Antigua and Ascension get a look at them.
In a world of ever-faster military information distribution and decision-making, 40 min. is a long time. That is surely one strong reason why the Antigua radar is moving to Western Australia, from where it can begin tracking Chinese polar satellites much sooner. It so happens that the western edge of the Australian continent, the radar's intended home from 2014, is at 114 deg. E. Long., nearly dead south of Taiyuan, which is at 112 deg. E.
A second U.S. sensor could be heading to Western Australia: an advanced satellite-watching telescope that the U.S. Air Force says is an order of magnitude more effective than older models, such as one on Diego Garcia, far out in the Indian Ocean. Analysts expect that its key tasks will include monitoring geostationary satellites over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
The transfer of the radar, and possibly the telescope, was announced in November. They will be parts of the U.S. Space Surveillance Network. Significantly, the network's role far transcends just watching Chinese spacecraft, analysts point out. And for that reason, the southerly latitude of Western Australia has importance alongside its longitude. Other U.S. ground-based space sensors are in the northern hemisphere.
While Australia is emphasizing the undoubtedly important civilian side of its move -- that the radar and telescope will help address the increasingly serious problem of monitoring space debris -- the decision to integrate itself into the U.S. space situational awareness effort underlines its strategic stance. As decision-makers in Canberra must have considered before announcing the move last November, the radar and telescope on Australian soil would be active and perhaps crucial in any confrontation between the U.S. and China.
Indeed, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) will operate the C-band radar and fully share its output with the U.S. This will be Australia's first capability in space situational awareness. More such capabilities are envisaged, in contrast to the current position where Australia relies entirely on the U.S. for information on what is going on in space.
"The Department of Defense currently has no independent capability in space situational awareness," says a spokeswoman. "Under the arrangements for the C-band radar, [it] will have the ability to task the C-band radar as part of its normal operations."
She adds: "Australia is in the early stages of investigating further cooperative opportunities with the U.S. as well as possible indigenous space situational awareness capabilities." The department will not comment directly on whether the radar, designated FPS-134, will track Chinese launches.
Despite Australia's eagerness to develop a space situational awareness capability, Richard Tanter of the University of Melbourne believes that in this case, as in others, Canberra is taking its default position of automatically responding to a U.S. request for assistance. "We are not asking many questions about this," he says, while noting that Australia will at least have greater understanding of space issues as the RAAF develops its skills.
The Australian government, long resistant to taking much interest in space, appears to have finally decided that the issue is important, says Brett Biddington of Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. For political and security reasons, the government is emphasizing civil sides of the activity, such as monitoring debris. Biddington's view is that this key issue is a conveniently valid cover for developing more military capabilities, which jibes with the department's statement that it is looking at further development in space situational awareness.
For watching Chinese launches from Taiyuan or points farther west, it is a happy coincidence that there is already a joint Australian-U.S. communications facility at the new home of the FPS-134 radar, North West Cape.
The telescope could be based at the same location or at Geraldton, says the Defense Department, presumably referring to the Kojarena satellite communications station inland from that remote Western Australia town. A final decision to move that sensor to Australia has not yet been made. "Australia and the U.S. are currently in the early stages of investigating all the issues associated with moving the space surveillance telescope to Australia," says the spokeswoman.