Could a space station on the ground in southern Argentina’s Patagonia be a massive spying facility for the Chinese military? No, according to the Chinese government, but evidence suggests otherwise.
The Chinese government insists the station’s sole purpose is the peaceful observation and exploration of space, asserting it played a key role in the landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the moon earlier this year.
However, according to Reuters, which obtained hundreds of pages of Argentinian government documents, the facility might be something more than peaceful. The facility reports to the People’s Liberation Army. It’s also managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), which conducts commercial satellite launches and offers satellite tracking control services. The Chinese command structure is the key difference between its space agency and that of other nations. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), for instance, are civilian agencies.
Many believe that aside from some innocuous activities, the Patagonia ground station could be used as an eavesdropping outpost to tap into and exploit communications and other sensitive data from other countries’ satellites.
However, Tony Beasley, director of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), a federal research and development center specializing in radio telescopes, contradicts that claim, suggesting such an operation is quite simple. “Anyone can do that. I can do that with a dish in my backyard, basically,” Beasley said to Reuters. “I don’t know that there’s anything particularly sinister or troubling about any part of China’s space radio network in Argentina.”
Juan Uriburu, an Argentine lawyer with expertise in bilateral ventures between the two countries, tells Reuters the wording and stipulations of the official agreement regarding the facility are irrelevant if there isn’t sufficient and transparent monitoring by Argentinian authorities. “How do you make sure they play by the rules?” he said. “Given that one of the actors involved in the agreements reports directly to the Chinese military, it is at least intriguing to see that the Argentine government did not deal with this issue with greater specificity.”
On behalf of the Trump Administration, Garrett Marquis, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said to Reuters: “The Patagonia ground station, agreed to in secret by a corrupt and financially-vulnerable government a decade ago, is another example of opaque and predatory Chinese dealings that undermine the sovereignty of host nations.”
The ESA also has a ground space station in Patagonia. Both the European and Chinese stations have 50-year leases. The secrecy that shrouds most actions by the Chinese government suggests the facility’s true purpose won’t be ascertained anytime soon.