China launched its first fully owned overseas satellite ground station near the North Pole on Thursday.
This could be prove just as politically significant to Beijing as the facility’s technological benefits, space experts said.
The facility, located in Sweden about 200km north of the Arctic Circle, would allow China to collect satellite data anywhere on Earth at speeds that were more than twice as fast as before, said the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the academic governing body that built and runs the station.
Construction of the China Remote Sensing Satellite North Pole Ground Station, as it is formally known, started two years ago at at Kiruna’s Esrange Space Centre, the world’s largest civil ground station for satellites.
Sweden is one the few European Union nations not to have joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – an intergovernmental military alliance – so is not so closely politically and militarily allied with the United States.
In 2011 China’s acquisition of a ground satellite station in Dongara, Australia – a close US ally – sparked serious concerns in the White House because it was in the same place as sensitive facilities used by the US military and Nasa for its space programmes. The operation of the station is believed to have been halted after protests from the US.
China has previously built ground satellite facilities in numerous foreign countries, mostly in Africa and South America, which are all joint ventures.
But the fully owned overseas ground station in Sweden would give China much greater freedom and security to operate its space projects, some of which had military purposes, a Beijing space scientist said.
“The Americans have long regarded Western Europe its backyard, and strictly off limits to China,” the mainland researcher, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said. But the Kiruna station now provides China with a formal way in, he said.
Chen Yuming, China’s Ambassador to Sweden, sent a letter of congratulations after the launch ceremony, which marks the start of the station’s test trials.
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