Watch this space

Asia in the final frontier

Namrata Goswami

International relations, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

9 October 2018

China, Japan, India, and the United Arab Emirates are Asia’s leading powers when it comes to outer space. Namrata Goswami takes a look at their respective interstellar ambitions.

As we celebrate UN World Space Week under the theme of ‘Space Unites the World’, it’s worth taking a look at the space programs of the Asia-Pacific – a region with rising political and societal commitment to outer space.

Buttressed by its long-term ambitions of becoming the most advanced space nation by 2045, China is challenging US primacy in space. Just this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India will be sending an astronaut to space by 2022. Japan is planning future projects to include asteroid exploration and wireless transmission of power, critical for the success of concepts like Space-based Solar Power. Significantly, a new entrant to the field is the UAE, which established its space agency in 2014.

Given these developments, the discourse on space, long dominated by the Cold War rhetoric of ‘who gets where first’ is changing. Space-faring countries of the Asia-Pacific are focusing on developing space technologies and related industries, rooted in their national development goals.

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Established in the 1950s, China’s space program has come a long way. From successfully launching its first satellite (Dong Fang Hong I) in 1970, China sent its first unmanned space shuttle, Shenzhou I, to space in 1999, followed by Shenzhou II and Shenzhou III in 2001 and 2002 respectively. In 2003, China sent its first manned spacecraft (Shenzhou V) into space. In 2007, China carried out its first anti-satellite missile test. In 2010, it both orbited an unmanned spacecraft around the moon and landed a rover on its surface.

Barred from taking part in the International Space Station (ISS) by a 2011 US Act of Congress, China has developed its own space stations, Tiangong 1 and Tiangong 2 and indigenously built a cargo ship named Tianzhou, capable of on-orbit refuelling that extends access and logistics lines. Autonomous cargo delivery and on-orbit refuelling are critical building blocks of an end-to-end supply chain for space presence and space resources or the construction of on-orbit power stations.

China’s ambitions for the long term are to establish its own permanent station (perhaps the only one left, once the ISS runs out of funding by 2025), focus on asteroid mining, and develop capacity for space industrialisation.

Critics of China’s program point out that China spends a meagre $6 billion on space compared to NASA’s $19 billion. My response is that the costs of manpower, technology, and logistics in China are cheaper than the US and the returns from these consequently much higher. Significantly, President Xi Jinping has advocated strongly for space and listed the ‘spirit of aerospace’ within the Chinese Communist Party as akin to the 1940s ‘Spirit of Long March’.

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India’s first satellite, the Aryabhatta, was launched on a Russian rocket in 1975. In 1980, India launched its first indigenously built rocket, the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV-3), followed by the development of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), India’s most successful rocket launcher to date.

The PSLV-37 caught the world’s attention in February 2017 when it successfully launched 104 satellites into orbit in a single mission. This Indian launch broke the earlier Russian record of 37 satellites in a single launch in 2014.

In June 2017, India launched the heavy lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark III. Critically, the GSLV Mark III is fitted with an Indian-made cryogenic upper stage, with the enhanced capacity of placing 4,000 kilograms into geostationary transfer orbit. In 2008, India launched its moon orbiter, Chandrayaan, which detected water on the moon’s surface. With Mangalyaan in 2014, India became the first Asian country to successfully orbit Mars, at a low cost of US $74 million. This success burnished India’s reputation as a technologically capable power, and one able to achieve difficult technological feats at very low costs.

Japan’s space program, meanwhile, has contributed to the ISS by developing a robotic arm as part of its Kibo Research Module and by launching cargo ships to the station.

Japan has contributed to advancing concepts like space-based solar power by demonstrating the ability to beam power directly from space to earth through wireless transmissions 24 hours a day. Japan also leads the world in asteroid exploration, as demonstrated by its Hayabusa asteroid mission which has brought back samples from Asteroid 25143.

Rounding off our orbit of Asia’s major space programs, the UAE claims it wants to build “the first Arab, Islamic probe to reach Mars by encouraging the peaceful application of space research”.

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The Gulf country’s major space goal is its Mars Mission named “Hope Probe” – an indigenously built spacecraft that will orbit Mars and study its climate and atmosphere by 2021. According to the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, “This is the Arab world’s version of President Kennedy’s moon shot”.

The UAE sees its space activities as a way to raise the country’s stature in international diplomacy. According to Dr Mohammed Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, “Certain countries might have problems here on Earth but you will see them cooperate in space”.

Significantly, both China and India, the lead space-faring nations in Asia, are using space as a tool of diplomacy. India launched the ‘South Asia Satellite’ in May 2017, and China has offered its Beidou navigation system to countries along the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Additionally, China hosts the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization for international collaborations in space, while India hosts the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific.

Countries of the Asia-Pacific are supporting and funding ambitions to build capacity and invest in a futuristic space industry that puts them on par with the US. And it’s not just national programs – it won’t be long before their private space industries catch up with US-based companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin with their own launch systems.

As Asia becomes the world’s economic and political centre of gravity, policymakers would do well to watch this space.

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