Eyes on the Skies

China's Growing Space Footprint in South America

China has laid out a bold vision for its ambitions in space. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for China to transform into a leading “space power,” and a 2022 Chinese government white paper states plainly that China’s space industry “serves the overall national strategy.” While Beijing insists that it utilizes space for peaceful purposes and aspires to make scientific achievements in space, its emergence as a space power poses potential risks to other countries.  

These risks stem from the far-reaching influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) within China’s space ecosystem. The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)—which is responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare—has a hand in virtually all Chinese space activities. Beijing is not exceptional in carving out a role for the military in space. Yet unlike the United States and its partners, China’s main civilian space agency, China National Space Administration, is overshadowed by the military.

The PLA’s prominence within China’s domestic space industry has flamed fears that its influence extends to overseas ground stations dotted across the globe. Ground stations form a key terrestrial leg of China’s overall space infrastructure, fulfilling the telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) responsibilities that enable the operation of satellites and other spacecraft.

map of South America pointing out Espacio Lejano Station

Ground stations also help keep track of the tens of thousands of satellites and other objects in Earth’s orbit—a capability known as space situational awareness (SSA) that is critical for fighting and winning wars in information-rich battle spaces.

Several of the ground stations used by China are located in South America to provide coverage of the skies over the Southern Hemisphere. These facilities make up one segment of a global network of ground stations that maintain communications with satellites as they pass over different geographic regions along their orbit. Their proximity to the United States has heightened fears that they can be used to spy on U.S. assets and intercept sensitive information. 

Beijing could be in violation of the terms of its agreement with Argentina to only conduct civilian activities.
– Admiral Craig Faller

The Espacio Lejano ground station in Neuquén, Argentina, has drawn considerable attention. The site has been shrouded in controversy since 2012, when Argentina leased nearly 500 acres of land to China for the construction of space facilities.

Since coming online five years later, Espacio Lejano has been administered with little to no oversight from the Argentine government. The contract between the two governments even stipulates that Argentina “not interfere or interrupt” activities carried out at the station, which has amplified rumors of spying and other military activity.

Admiral Craig Faller, then commander of the U.S. Southern Command, raised red flags about the station in a testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in 2019 about the station. He stated that “Beijing could be in violation of the terms of its agreement with Argentina to only conduct civilian activities, and may have the ability to monitor and potentially target U.S., allied, and partner space activities.”

China has laid out a bold vision for its ambitions in space. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for China to transform into a leading “space power,” and a 2022 Chinese government white paper states plainly that China’s space industry “serves the overall national strategy.” While Beijing insists that it utilizes space for peaceful purposes and aspires to make scientific achievements in space, its emergence as a space power poses potential risks to other countries.  

These risks stem from the far-reaching influence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) within China’s space ecosystem. The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)—which is responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare—has a hand in virtually all Chinese space activities. Beijing is not exceptional in carving out a role for the military in space. Yet unlike the United States and its partners, China’s main civilian space agency, China National Space Administration, is overshadowed by the military.

The PLA’s prominence within China’s domestic space industry has flamed fears that its influence extends to overseas ground stations dotted across the globe. Ground stations form a key terrestrial leg of China’s overall space infrastructure, fulfilling the telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) responsibilities that enable the operation of satellites and other spacecraft.

Ground stations also help keep track of the tens of thousands of satellites and other objects in Earth’s orbit—a capability known as space situational awareness (SSA) that is critical for fighting and winning wars in information-rich battle spaces.

Several of the ground stations used by China are located in South America to provide coverage of the skies over the Southern Hemisphere. These facilities make up one segment of a global network of ground stations that maintain communications with satellites as they pass over different geographic regions along their orbit. Their proximity to the United States has heightened fears that they can be used to spy on U.S. assets and intercept sensitive information. 

Beijing could be in violation of the terms of its agreement with Argentina to only conduct civilian activities.
– Admiral Craig Faller

The Espacio Lejano ground station in Neuquén, Argentina, has drawn considerable attention. The site has been shrouded in controversy since 2012, when Argentina leased nearly 500 acres of land to China for the construction of space facilities.

Since coming online five years later, Espacio Lejano has been administered with little to no oversight from the Argentine government. The contract between the two governments even stipulates that Argentina “not interfere or interrupt” activities carried out at the station, which has amplified rumors of spying and other military activity.

Admiral Craig Faller, then commander of the U.S. Southern Command, raised red flags about the station in a testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in 2019 about the station. He stated that “Beijing could be in violation of the terms of its agreement with Argentina to only conduct civilian activities and may have the ability to monitor and potentially target U.S., allied, and partner space activities.”

Copernicus Sentinel data, 2022

Copernicus Sentinel data, 2022

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Copernicus Sentinel data, 2022

Copernicus Sentinel data, 2022

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Espacio Lejano, Neuquén, Argentina. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Located on a patch of land in the middle of the Patagonian Desert, the facilities at Espacio Lejano are rather modest.

A security fence encompasses only about 0.4 square kilometers.

The larger plot of leased land is marked by an unfinished perimeter, indicating that the ground station might be expanded in the future.

Its primary assets consist of a 35-meter antenna (top) and a 13.5-meter (bottom) antenna.

35-meter antenna at Espacio Lejano in Neuquén Province, Argentina

35-meter antenna at Espacio Lejano in Neuquén Province, Argentina

Illustration of S-, X-, and Ka-bands utilized by antenna at Espacio Lejano

Illustration of S-, X-, and Ka-bands utilized by antenna at Espacio Lejano

Antennas communicate through radio waves that are segmented into various “bands,” or sections, of the radio spectrum. Understanding the types of data transmitted across these bands provides insight into how a particular antenna may be used. 

Materials published by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs indicate that the 35-meter antenna at Espacio Lejano operates in the S- and X-bands for sending data (uplink) and receiving data (downlink) and uses the Ka-band for receiving only.

Band Frequency Interval Civil Applications Military Applications
S 2–4 GHz Telecommunications systems (e.g., Bluetooth, GPS, WiFi), civil space missions (used by NASA to communicate with the International Space Station), deep space operations and research (telemetry for James Webb Space Telescope) Airborne early warning (AEW) systems
X 8–12 GHz High-resolution mapping, radio astronomy, remote sensing (e.g., deep space operations and research, Earth exploration) Airborne intercept, battlefield surveillance, command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), missile guidance systems, weapons tracking
Ka 27–40 GHz High-resolution mapping, radio astronomy, remote sensing (e.g., deep space operations and research, Earth exploration) Close-range targeting radars on military aircraft

All three bands can be used to transmit data related to scientific research and commercial communications, but the X- and Ka-bands are typically reserved for government use, which may include the transmission of sensitive information. Due to its resilience to atmospheric interference, the X-band portion of the radio frequency spectrum can be used for a variety of purposes, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), weapons tracking, and missile guidance. The Ka-band, which corresponds to higher frequencies, can be used for communication between military satellites and aircraft. While military communications are encrypted, other types of data transfers can be susceptible to interception.

Espacio Lejano is run by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a sub-entity of the PLASSF, which has heightened suspicion that the Chinese military makes ready use of the station. CLTC manages the ground infrastructure for China’s space operations and is staffed by PLA personnel, further illustrating the integration of the military in space-related activities.  

China has sought to counter these allegations by claiming that the station is reserved for peaceful missions. Espacio Lejano forms part of the China Deep Space Network—which supports interplanetary spacecraft missions—and played a critical role in the Chang’e 4 mission that delivered a robotic lander and rover to the far side of the moon in 2019. Executing civilian TT&C operations as part of scientific missions does not preclude ground stations from spying on foreign countries or supporting counter-space operations. Much of the technology used at ground stations is inherently dual use.  

Executing civilian TT&C operations as part of scientific missions does not preclude ground stations from spying on foreign countries or supporting counter-space operations.

The capacity for ground stations to offer dual use applications is true for all countries with robust space programs, but China is particularly reticent about its operations at overseas ground stations. The lack of reliable information further stokes fears about its intentions. 

35-meter antenna at Espacio Lejano in Neuquén Province, Argentina

35-meter antenna at Espacio Lejano in Neuquén Province, Argentina

Antennas communicate through radio waves that are segmented into various “bands,” or sections, of the radio spectrum. Understanding the types of data transmitted across these bands provides insight into how a particular antenna may be used. 

Materials published by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs indicate that the 35-meter antenna at Espacio Lejano operates in the S- and X-bands for sending data (uplink) and receiving data (downlink) and uses the Ka-band for receiving only.

Note: See desktop version for more information.

Band Civil Applications Military Applications
S Telecommunications systems, civil space missions, deep space operations and research Airborne early warning (AEW) systems
X Hi-res mapping, radio astronomy, remote sensing (deep space operations and research) Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), command and control, etc.
Ka Hi-res mapping, radio astronomy, remote sensing (deep space operations and research) Close-range targeting radars on military aircraft

All three bands can be used to transmit data related to scientific research and commercial communications, but the X- and Ka-bands are more commonly used for military operations. Due to its resilience to atmospheric interference, the X-band portion of the radio frequency spectrum can be used for a variety of purposes, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), weapons tracking, and missile guidance. The Ka-band, which corresponds to higher frequencies, can be used for communication between military satellites and aircraft. While military communications are encrypted, other commercial signals can be susceptible to interception.

Illustration of S-, X-, and Ka-bands utilized by antenna at Espacio Lejano

Illustration of S-, X-, and Ka-bands utilized by antenna at Espacio Lejano

Espacio Lejano is run by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), a sub-entity of the PLASSF, which has heightened suspicion that the Chinese military makes ready use of the station. CLTC manages the ground infrastructure for China’s space operations and is staffed by PLA personnel, further illustrating the integration of the military in space-related activities.  

China has sought to counter these allegations by claiming that the station is reserved for peaceful missions. Espacio Lejano forms part of the China Deep Space Network—which supports interplanetary spacecraft missions—and played a critical role in the Chang’e 4 mission that delivered a robotic lander and rover to the far side of the moon in 2019. Executing civilian TT&C operations as part of scientific missions does not preclude ground stations from spying on foreign countries or supporting counter-space operations. Much of the technology used at ground stations is inherently dual use.  

Executing civilian TT&C operations as part of scientific missions does not preclude ground stations from spying on foreign countries or supporting counter-space operations.

The capacity for ground stations to offer dual use applications is true for all countries with robust space programs, but China is particularly reticent about its operations at overseas ground stations. The lack of reliable information further stokes fears about its intentions. 

The concerns surrounding Espacio Lejano are not isolated.

Three hundred and fifty miles to the north lies the Santiago Satellite Station. Nestled in a remote valley within the Andes Mountains in Chile, the station is operated by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), a space services provider that leases its facilities to international partners including NASA and the European Space Agency.  

China’s ties to Santiago stretch back decades. CLTC leased out equipment and built space facilities under contract with the University of Chile’s Space Research Center before the station was sold to SSC in 2008. In 2010, CTLC penned a multiyear agreement with SSC to access a 10-meter C-band antenna at the site. According to the SSC website, CLTC currently operates a total of two antennas at the station, which satellite imagery suggests are located in the northwest corner of the main operations and support area.

Band Civil Applications Military Applications
C Mostly used for television broadcasting Surveillance, long-range tracking (weapons location)

In 2019, China’s activities at the Santiago station were called into question. The Swedish Defense Research Agency found that China's access to antennas at another SSC ground station—one near the Arctic Circle in Kiruna, Sweden—could violate the terms of use and be used for military intelligence gathering and surveillance. These findings fed into broader apprehension about Chinese intentions and prompted SSC to announce in 2020 that it would not renew its contract with China at Kiruna. It also chose not to renew contracts with China at the Santiago station and a third location in Dongara, Australia. 

Overview of the SSC Santiago Satellite Station in Chile. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies. [Click here to expand]

Overview of the SSC Santiago Satellite Station in Chile. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies. [Click here to expand]

The concerns surrounding Espacio Lejano are not isolated.

Three hundred and fifty miles to the north lies the Santiago Satellite Station. Nestled in a remote valley within the Andes Mountains in Chile, the station is operated by the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), a space services provider that leases its facilities to international partners including NASA and the European Space Agency.  

China’s ties to Santiago stretch back decades. CLTC leased out equipment and built space facilities under contract with the University of Chile’s Space Research Center before the station was sold to SSC in 2008. In 2010, CTLC penned a multiyear agreement with SSC to access a 10-meter C-band antenna at the site. According to the SSC website, CLTC currently operates a total of two antennas at the station, which satellite imagery suggests are located in the northwest corner of the main operations and support area.

Band Civil Applications Military Applications
C Mostly used for television broadcasting Surveillance, long-range tracking (weapons location)

In 2019, China’s activities at the Santiago station were called into question. The Swedish Defense Research Agency found that China's access to antennas at another SSC ground station—one near the Arctic Circle in Kiruna, Sweden—could violate the terms of use and be used for military intelligence gathering and surveillance. These findings fed into broader apprehension about Chinese intentions and prompted SSC to announce in 2020 that it would not renew its contract with China at Kiruna. It also chose not to renew contracts with China at the Santiago station and a third location in Dongara, Australia. 

Overview of the SSC Santiago Satellite Station in Chile. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies. [Click here to expand]

Overview of the SSC Santiago Satellite Station in Chile. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies. [Click here to expand]

Close-up view of the four-row linear array built during 2019. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Close-up view of the four-row linear array built during 2019. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Close-up view of facility built during 2007–2008 housing two antennas that are likely operated by CLTC. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Close-up view of facility built during 2007–2008 housing two antennas that are likely operated by CLTC. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

A probable axial mode Yagi turnstile array sits isolated within its own security fence at the far northwest corner of the station. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

A probable axial mode Yagi turnstile array sits isolated within its own security fence at the far northwest corner of the station. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

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Close-up view of the four-row linear array built during 2019. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Close-up view of the four-row linear array built during 2019. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Close-up view of facility built during 2007–2008 housing two antennas that are likely operated by CLTC. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Close-up view of facility built during 2007–2008 housing two antennas that are likely operated by CLTC. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

A probable axial mode Yagi turnstile array sits isolated within its own security fence at the far northwest corner of the station. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

A probable axial mode Yagi turnstile array sits isolated within its own security fence at the far northwest corner of the station. Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies.

Pushback due to accusations of spying may force China to lean on partnerships elsewhere in the region. China has been pivotal in helping Venezuela establish a presence in space, dating back to at least 2005 when Caracas contracted the state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) to develop the country’s first satellite. The deal also included the construction of the El Sombrero satellite ground station in Guárico.

The station sits within Capitán Manuel Rios Air Base. 

Pushback due to accusations of spying may force China to lean on partnerships elsewhere in the region. China has been pivotal in helping Venezuela establish a presence in space, dating back to at least 2005 when Caracas contracted the state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) to develop the country’s first satellite. The deal also included the construction of the El Sombrero satellite ground station in Guárico.

The station sits within Capitán Manuel Rios Air Base. 

The presence of CGWIC in the region should raise some eyebrows. It is a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), a key state-owned defense contractor that produces space launch vehicles, missile systems, and other equipment. Due to its links to the Chinese military, CASC was included in then president Donald Trump’s November 2020 executive order outlawing U.S. investments in 31 Chinese companies. The move grew out of broader pushback from the United States against China’s “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy—a national effort spearheaded by President Xi to upgrade the country’s defense industry by “fusing” together China’s military and economic development.  

China’s activities in the region are not just the purview of the government entities and major state-owned firms. Emposat, a Beijing-based firm with close ties to the influential state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, plans to build a ground station in Río Gallegos as part of a joint venture with Argentine company Ascentio. When completed, the facility is expected to house four to six antennas of various sizes and provide increased coverage of Earth-orbiting satellites due to its proximity to the South Pole. The exact location has yet to be identified through satellite imagery, and additional details of the partnership are otherwise murky. 

As commercial actors play an increasingly important role in space, Beijing may look to the United States for an example of how Chinese companies can expand its capabilities. There are already other U.S. firms that provide commercial SSA services from various international locations. Chinese start-ups may follow suit.

Note: Click or tap the dots for more information.

Ground stations are just one piece of the puzzle. They work in tandem with other facilities to support China’s terrestrial space network. Powerful optical telescopes, for instance, can supplement data received by ground stations with details about the visual characteristics of objects in space.

Space tracking and surveillance ships can perform many of the same TT&C functions as ground stations but with the added benefit of mobility. Coverage from both land and sea not only ensures continuous contact with a satellite, but also provide redundancy. China’s Yuan Wang-class (or “Long View”-class) tracking ships have raised hackles over the years due to concerns they are used for spying. In August 2022, the Yuan Wang 5 visited Sri Lanka despite vocal Indian protests.

Close-up view of China’s Yuan Wang-class (or “Long View”-class) tracking ship

Close-up view of China’s Yuan Wang-class (or “Long View”-class) tracking ship

China's space network in South America is part of a broader push by Beijing to establish itself as a leading global space power and partner of choice in space for middle-income economies. Many countries, especially those with political dynamics that curtail cooperation with the United States, stand to benefit from working with Beijing. Doing so, however, risks entanglement with opaque actors within China’s expansive space ecosystem. 

For the United States, China’s increasingly sophisticated foothold in South America poses a multifront challenge. Washington has for decades taken for granted its influence in the region, which has eroded while the United States has concentrated its attention elsewhere. While there is room, and more importantly a need, for South American countries to benefit from relations with China, the United States can do more to support regional actors so that they can engage with Beijing on a more equal footing.  

There are also direct security implications for the United States. In April 2022, U.S. defense secretary Lloyd J. Austin III testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the PLA has modernized “with a focus on offsetting U.S. military advantages,” including “rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counter-space, cyber, electronic, and information-warfare capabilities.”  

Overseas stations will likely help the Chinese military further level up its operational capabilities. As the PLA extends its reach farther from China’s shores, it will need a robust suite of space capabilities to assist with intelligence gathering, situational awareness, and more. Ground stations can be called on to support all these needs.  

Written by Matthew P. Funaiole, Dana Kim, Brian Hart, and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. Author biographies can be found here.

Special thanks to Ryan Berg, Jaehyun Han, Tucker Harris, Kaitlyn Johnson, Jennifer Jun, and Thomas G. Roberts.

Produced by Michael Kohler, designed by Christina Hamm, with development assistance by Mariel de la Garza.

Satellite Imagery: Copyright © 2022 by Maxar Technologies
Header Photo: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) via Wikimedia Commons

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Hidden Reach is a CSIS special initiative that shines light on under-appreciated sources of China's far-reaching influence abroad.