Asia’s Space Race: The First Frontier

With NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) largely dominating the space exploration scene, Asia is a region that tends to go unnoticed by the public as one worthy of contention. But as China, Japan, India and South Korea enhance their offering, the rest of the world needs to take note of this rising nation.

The term ‘space race’ was first coined in the 1960s to describe the competitive nature of the astronautics industry, back when it was governed by clearly defined objectives and milestones set by an individual country’s space programme. Decades later and the term has become difficult to apply to the handful of rapidly rising space programmes in Asia due to previous historical happenings that divided the world, including a vastly different political context.

In spite of this, Asia is becoming a genuine contender in the space race as the end of the 20th century witnessed an astonishing growth spurt in industrial, technological and economic power across Asia. The continent has shown determination in the face of infrastructural challenge to lift themselves out of poverty and guard against the mistakes of the past.

The reason Asia’s space programmes have been largely glossed over by those in the wider world is because they have been relatively small scale in comparison to the likes of NASA; initially establishing satellites to map farmland and connect rural areas to telecoms infrastructure. However, when China, India and Japan began running their own world-class space programmes, the rest of the world seemed largely unaware; this is why it may come as a surprise to most to learn that not only did China land a rover on the moon in December last year, but India became the first Asian nation to reach Mars.

A growing major power

Unlike Europe’s shared cooperative approach to space travel, where all of the major powers (except Russia) are members of the ESA, Asia operates a highly nationalistic, sometimes secretive and mostly competitive space programme; where there are no political dyads such as China-Japan, India-China, and North-South Korea.

This being said, China and Japan have been known to sponsor rival space organisations in an attempt to ‘organise’ smaller countries and draw them to their side. In light of this, China has formed an ESA-like body called the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (APSCO), with members including Bangladesh, Thailand and Mongolia among others.

The benefits of APSCO include access to Chinese space training, its ground stations and entry into its satellite development projects. In rivalry with this, others in the region have opted to participate in the Japanese-led Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, which allows for greater flexibility when it comes to projects.

China

Since the 1980s, China has been in a favourable and competitive astronautic position, gradually building up a range of scientific, commercial and military space capabilities. Over the past decade, China has launched a spacecraft that mapped the Moon (Chang’e 1), conducted a lunar rover mission (Chang’e 2), and orbited and visited a small space station (Tiangong 1), with plans for a much larger station within a decade.

Moreover, the country is currently upgrading its fourth and southernmost space vehicle launch facility (spaceport), located in Wenchang, Hainan, which was formerly a sub-orbital test centre.

No longer an industry in its infancy, China’s young scientific and engineering minds have been steadily expanding the country’s satellite network, including a newly operational BeiDou-1 Navigation Satellite System, which is due to serve global customers upon completion of a second generation of the system in 2020.

By increasing its space budget and investment in military counter-space technologies, with recent tests of offensive systems in 2010, 2013 and 2014, China is gearing up to demonstrate its potential to dominate the future of astronautics. This statement has divided experts, as its future space policies will be dependent on its economic status and evolving relationship with the US.

Japan

For Japan, the turn of the millennium escalated spaceflight to exciting new levels as the country strengthened its strategic and political ties to America, becoming a valued partner in the International Space Station (ISS). Additionally in 2008, the Japanese Diet pushed through revolutionary legislation that ended the country’s previous ban on military activities in space.

Despite untold costs of recovery after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Tokyo has worked hard to double its space efforts with a new launcher and renewed testing in high-prestige space science and human spaceflight; including an active programme of research on its Kibo module on-board the ISS. Moreover, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle spacecraft now provides the only non-US and non-Russian service module able to ferry supplies to the ISS.

More recently, an ambitious mission which aims to put four astronauts on an asteroid by 2018, to collect soil samples for research purposes, was announced by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in December 2014. The country fears that China’s fast-paced space accomplishments may put Japan’s astronautic abilities in the shade and has been making a conscious effort to publicise its advancements in this area where possible.

Japan cannot afford to fall behind their rapidly advancing neighbour as the future of space exploration is not only associated with economic wealth, but also one that embraces the possibility of life outside the earth’s atmosphere and even alternative sources of energy. In line with this, the country has been speculating the idea of a 10,000 metric tonne solar farm satellite that would deliver a constant supply of green energy to Earth.

India

Beyond its Mars mission, India has the lunar orbiter Chandrayaan 1 which launched in 2008-09, a planned Chandrayaan 2 rover mission, and designs for an eventual independent human spaceflight programme. In recent years, the country’s space budget has increased to double-digit percentages which may or may not be sustainable dependent on economic conditions.

In response to the accelerated progress in China, the country decided to abandon its prior sole focus on space applications aimed at India’s population - such as telemedicine, Earth observation and coastal management programmes – to adopt a dramatic enhancement of its space science programme in order to rally domestic support and gain international attention.

This new focus brings a second initiative in the military sector; New Delhi quickly reacted to China’s swift anti-satellite test by creating the Integrated Space Cell, aimed at handing operational control of selected observation and communications satellites to each of its military bases. It also announced a programme to match Beijing’s counter-space capabilities with its own anti-satellite weapon.  

Mature economies

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea has a satellite programme that it uses for domestic applications. Additionally, Korean astronaut, Soyeon Yi, flew to the International Space Station and became one of the country’s most successful cultural ambassadors. Despite this, its programme also presents some concerns as South Korea has been known to re-label parts manufactured in other countries as its own and has experienced technical difficulties in the past.

Still, the country speaks of grandiose plans to build an indigenous launch vehicle that will land a robot on the moon, emerging in the realms of science, communications, commerce and national security affairs; with ambitious plans surfacing to develop powerful space launchers, advanced satellites, lunar probes and deep space exploration capabilities. These plans are partially driven by an inter-Korean space rivalry, with both nations exhibiting significant differences in their approaches.

In accordance with this, it is worth noting that space programmes do exist in most Southeast Asian nations with mature economics such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Most have satellites in orbit, whether they are indigenous or foreign imports.

The race is on

Asia’s space race will pose both challenge and opportunity for the US, which also sets an example for new cooperation opportunities for other countries wanting a piece of the action. For example, through burden-sharing on the Wideband Global Satcom system and a new collaboration between Australia and Japan, the US military hopes to reduce the vulnerability of its space assets and create new networked capabilities that will be more resilient.

From this, it is clear that the future of Asia’s space development initiatives matter to both the region and the world. However, recent links between space exploration and the military could get out of hand; if for example a threat was detected by a particular satellite and the data was not shared. Rest assured the recent signature between Chinese President, Xi Jingping and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to explore cooperation in space offers some solace in this regard.

Nevertheless, Asia’s aeronautics industry paints a convoluted and unpredictable scene that will no doubt evolve rapidly over the next few decades, representing a critical portion of the world’s exploration targets and discoveries.

For most nations, it is simply about self-improvement; as the majority of Asian projects are driven by practical needs and economic improvements such as the use of satellites. However, there is an identifiable competitiveness and drive on a domestic and international scale that indicates the continent is clearly locked in a space race amongst not just themselves, but the rest of the world.