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Pentagon to beef up space surveillance in Australia

Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton announced the plan in Australia this week.

Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton announced the plan in Australia this week. // Matt Rourke/AP

The Defense Department has agreed to install surveillance radar in Australia capable of identifying objects in low-Earth orbit and an advanced space telescope capable of eyeballing objects 22,000 miles in space. The agreement follows high-level talks between the two countries this week.

The joint communique agreed to by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Australian  Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defense Minister Stephen Smith also looked at developing a combined communications gateway in Western Australia that the Pentagon’s Wideband Global Satellite System could access.

Australia invested $740.9 million in the Wideband Global Satellite System in 2007, which eventually will consist of nine satellites in a geosynchronous orbit. Each satellite has a maximum data rate of 3.6 gigabits per second of data.

At a news conference in Perth after the meeting, Panetta said the space agreement “represents a major leap forward in bilateral space cooperation and an important new frontier in the United States' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.” President Obama called for increased Pentagon focus on the Asia-Pacific region in a 21st century military strategy released in January.

The C-band ground surveillance radar the Pentagon plans to move to Australia currently is located in Antigua and operates as part of a global space surveillance network to detect, track and identify objects in space. Moving the radar to Australia will provide, for the first time, coverage of space objects in the Southern and Eastern hemispheres and track space launches in Asia, the Pentagon said.

Relocating the C-band radar to Australia and putting it into operation will cost about $30 million and an additional $8 million to $10 million a year to operate. A senior U.S. Defense official said the United States then will train Australians to operate the system.

The agreement also covers installation of the advanced Space Surveillance Telescope the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed and first demonstrated in 2011. The Pentagon said this telescope can detect and track microsatellites, space and other objects at “deep space altitudes” -- 22,000 miles, or the geosynchronous orbit used by most communications satellites.

Neither Australian nor U.S. officials disclosed where the radar or telescope will be located. One possible site is the Pine Gap installation near Alice Springs, the satellite tracking station the National Security Agency developed in 1970 to downlink data from spy satellites. It has been jointly operated by the two countries since the mid-1980s.

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