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The Asian Space Race – Analysis

India's launch of the Agni V. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Wikipedia Commons.India's launch of the Agni V. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Wikipedia Commons.

By Elizabeth Quintana

Once seen as the exclusive domain of superpowers, space is becoming affordable for an increasing range of actors. However, like the cyber domain, space, too, is becoming more congested, contested and competitive. Driven by national ambition, geostrategic tensions and burgeoning economic opportunities, Asian countries’ space capabilities are developing at an astonishing rate. This is a truly exciting time to be in the space sector, but the implications of the new Asian Space Race may have far-reaching consequences.

The global space sector was worth $330 billion in 2015 and is one of the fastest-growing industries in the global economy. Today, space services are filtering into almost every aspect of modern life: satellite communications support, internet and TV services, distance learning, telemedicine and asset tracking; earth observation satellites that provide disaster monitoring, fisheries management, crop forecasting and urban planning; precision, navigation and timing signals that are used for navigation in ships, aircraft and land vehicles, but which also support a range of public transport and taxi apps; these signals are also now widely used for financial transactions.

Once dominated by government agencies, 76% of revenue in the space sector is today generated by commercial activities. This has been achieved through the continued miniaturisation of electronics, which has permitted the construction of mini-satellites―‘cubesats’―with capabilities previously only seen on much larger platforms. As a consequence, satellite manufacture and launch have become affordable for a greater number of nation states (70 states now consider themselves to be ‘space-faring nations’) and falling costs are also attracting an increasing breadth of commercial organisations to the space sector (even small to medium enterprises and universities). Indeed, the commercial space sector is experiencing something of a revolution as ‘NewSpace’ pioneers,’ new companies funded by wealthy entrepreneurs, have sought to upend the established commercial space sector, which they consider to be too slow and unambitious.

Other innovations, like the upcoming launch of the OneWeb mega-constellation into the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), are also important advances in the space industry. This 680+ satellite constellation aims to provide affordable broadband globally and helps reach parts of the world that do not currently have access to the internet. Other entities are also proposing similar initiatives. Similar innovations are taking place in earth observation through companies such as Planet Labs, which aims to launch over 100 cubesats, Google’s TerraBella and DigitalGlobe, which offers military-grade imagery commercially.[i] If all the mega-constellations planned come to fruition, the total number of satellites in orbit around the Earth will increase to around 8,000. Such plans are only buttressing the impetus to mass-manufacture satellites, which in turn is driving new solutions for cost-effective and rapid access to the LEO through the development of cheaper, reusable launch vehicles and space planes. It is also raising the very serious issues of tracking and removing space debris, space situational awareness and even space traffic management.

Asian space programmes

While much of the attention in the West has focused on high-profile NewSpace entrepreneurs, the Asian space sector is entering into something of a renaissance period. Government space agencies still dominate this market, with Russia and China the most established and active space actors. Both have recognised space as a critical element of the US network-centric warfare concept and have also identified it as America’s Achilles heel. They have worked actively over the last fifteen years to close the gap with the United States through investment in space platforms, anti-satellite capabilities and missions in the military, commercial and scientific domains, and by integrating space into a broader deterrence strategy.

China has perhaps the most ambitious space programme in the region and has seen a remarkable string of successes in 2016: it launched a new launch facility in Hainan province; brought out three new launchers; tested space debris removal and on-orbit servicing capabilities; launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite as well as a new maritime surveillance satellite providing a perpetual gaze over the South China Sea; and undertook a successful 30-day mission to its Tiangong-2 space capsule, paving the way for a permanently manned space station in the 2020s.

Russia has continued to witness success in the commercial space launch market, but President Putin has prioritised military space capabilities over the last fifteen years as he has sought to modernise the Russian Armed Forces. Recent tensions with NATO have spilled into the space domain, and operations in Syria have also highlighted the need for Russia to invest in hyperspectral and earth observation capabilities to help meet the growing demands of its counterterrorism campaign.

India and Japan, too, have developed impressive space expertise. Whilst they have traditionally upheld their commitment to use space for peaceful purposes, both are increasingly leaning towards military space programmes. This is with a view of offsetting the threats posed by regional competitors, predominantly China and North Korea. Similarly, South Korea has been accelerating its indigenous space programme, developing earth observation satellites and an indigenous launch vehicle in response to the developing nuclear programme in North Korea.

A number of smaller Asian nations are also growing space programmes, procuring or developing satellite communication (SATCOM) services and using the cubesat revolution to develop earth observation satellites―and this is being used by larger Asian nations to gain influence and customers for their launch vehicles. Indonesia, for instance, has launched two indigenous satellites, and plans to launch a military SATCOM capability in 2017. South Korea’s fledgling space programme is maturing, and it is currently working to develop a national launch vehicle―NARO 2―following the success of the Russian-supported NARO-1 programme. Singaporean companies and universities launched six technology demonstrator cubesats in December 2015 onboard an Indian PSLV.[ii]

In addition, there are two multinational bodies operating in Asia. The first is the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (ASPRAF), set up in 1993 by Japan and with 40 member states from around the Asia-Pacific region but also a number of European states, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France. The second is the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization that is led by China, has a fee-paying membership and is a more select grouping.

Japan has been particularly busy helping build space capacity across Asia. For example, the Bangladesh space agency, SPARRO, has been collaborating with the United States and Japan for a number of years now, gaining access to some of their constellations. It now intends to launch its own geostationary communications satellite in December 2017. Bhutan has sent three engineers to train in Japan and is looking to develop an earth observation cubesat, which it will launch in 2018. Similarly, the Philippines launched its very first earth observation micro-satellite in 2016. Developed indigenously with the help of two Japanese universities. Vietnam, too, has had support from Japan to build its national space centre and is co-developing both an electro-optical and radar satellites.

Meanwhile, China, too, has offered combined satellite and launch services to a range countries. China launched the first communications satellite owned by LAOS, to provide services such as distance education and medicine, telecommunications and internet links, as well as facilitate anti-disaster efforts across the mountainous nation. China partnered with Sri Lankan firm SupremeSat to launch a communications satellite in 2012, and the China Great Wall Industry Corporation will launch a communications satellite for Thaicom in 2019. China has struggled with garnering commercial business, however, as the United States banned the export of its satellites and its satellite components to China in 2011, and US components are an integral component of most communications satellites today.

Regional and global positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) systems

PNT systems are arguably the most important space services. The US GPS constellation was the first global provider of PNT and has seen a range of countries look to supplement the capability with their own national, regional or global systems. Today, 100% US precision-guided munitions rely on GPS but as mentioned previously, the civilian/commercial reliance on GPS is arguably just as important. Most, if not all, PNT systems are dual use, i.e., they have a commercially available capability and a second signal designed to be more resistant to interference. Almost all PNT systems are interoperable or designed to be complementary. All smart phones designed after 2015 will use both GPS and Russian GLONASS chips, for example. Having access to greater numbers of satellites is useful in heavily urbanised environments or in mountainous regions that are likely to find it difficult to have direct line of sight to a satellite.

GLONASS was the first competitor to the PNT system. It was first launched in 1982 and operating in 1995, but it was in 2001 that Putin personally prioritised the constellation in 2001; in 2003, the second generation constellation GLONASS-M was launched. They have now started building and launching the third generation GLONASS-K.

The Chinese Beidou system continues to expand beyond its borders, . providing a regional service with plans to achieve global coverage by 2020. Whilst the American GPS system is a transmit-only capability, Beidou can also receive and retransmit small amounts of data, which means that it also provides a regional (and eventually global) low-rate communications capability for the People’s Liberation Army.

As for India, it completed its indigenous seven-satellite regional navigation system. Japan’s four-satellite Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, designed to be interoperable with US GPS and provide regional service in Indonesia and Australia, is slated to be operational in 2018.

Space situational awareness (SSA)

SSA is important, as satellites do not have the ability to ‘see’ where they are travelling. Objects in LEO around the Earth travel faster than 28,000 kilometres per hour; a collision with another object is likely to cause significant damage. In addition, nation states are liable for any damage caused by a satellite operated from their territory, whether it is nationally or commercially owned. There is no limit to this liability. Objects are therefore tracked in space to avoid collisions. Although there are only some 1,400 active satellites in orbit around the Earth today, there are also defunct satellites floating around, parts of space launchers and other debris that circles the Earth—including, by the by, a spanner lost by an astronaut during a space walk on the International Space Station.

Satellite operators will clearly wish to know not only if their satellites are operating safely, but also if other operators are contesting their ability to operate. Space objects are typically tracked by ground-based sensors (mainly radars, to allow all-weather capability). However, it is also possible to use space-based assets. The United States is looking to upgrade its SSA capabilities through the building of a ‘space fence,’ which will allow it to track objects just a few centimetres across. Russia, too, has sought to upgrade its space surveillance network.[iii] Ten local sites will receive enhanced radar and laser-optical systems to help spot objects down to two to three centimetres. Russia has also proposed to share its data through the United Nations to all space operators, although it’s proposal has been shot down. At present, the US Joint Space Operations Centre (JSPOC) is the only organisation providing space situational data.

Curiously, China has been very quiet about its national space surveillance network. Analysts have surmised that China repurposes existing facilities and assets to perform SSA, although this was largely seen to be for the objective of tracking its own satellites rather than to gauge actions and intentions of other satellites in the skies.[iv]

Japan has also announced that it will dedicate part of its National Defense forces to monitoring space debris and protecting its satellites from 2019 onwards.[v] The military force likely drawn from the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces will also work with their US counterparts to share data and enhance cooperation in space.

Debris removal capabilities

With so much debris flying around LEO and mega-constellations looking to launch in the next two years, there is a pressing need to start to remove some of the space debris. However, under UN Outer Space Treaty, a nation state is responsible for the safe operation of its own satellites, which means no other nation state can remove it without the owner’s permission. As a consequence, tests of “debris removal capabilities” are viewed with healthy dose of suspicion: one man’s debris removal capability is another man’s anti-satellite capability.

Again, Asian regional powers have attempted to find solutions, ranging from China’s Aolong-1 satellite with a robot arm meant to remove space debris to Russia’s series of mysterious manoeuvres with its Luch satellite to Japan’s KITE that attracts debris, and will be running a test in 2017. Japan even has commercial offering—the ELSA satellite—that identifies a piece of space debris, sticks to it, then drags it out of orbit with both burning out upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

On-orbit refuelling

China tested on-orbit refuelling in the LEO in June 2016 when its first first satellite-to-satellite refuelling system was launched. Only the United States has successfully undertaken on-orbit refuelling of satellites . US companies such as ATK Orbital are keen to start offering on-orbit services from 2020 onwards.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency plans to launch a larger, more sophisticated craft for the US Air Force in 2020. The Phoenix in-orbit servicing programme, currently delayed due to technical and cost concerns, will also be able to carry out jobs such as repairing, upgrading and refuelling ageing satellites. It would even be able to “turn foreign satellites into US spy satellites,” according to the US Air Force.

While this technology offers practical advantages, not least among them that it will extend the life of valuable (and expensive) platforms, very same technology can be used for nefarious purposes. It is difficult to retain international confidence in the adoption of new technologies if these systems are used to damage another state’s platforms. The situation becomes even more complex where commercial satellites are involved. These platforms are often providing services for government agencies or carrying government payloads, in which case they may well be legitimate targets according to the Laws of Armed Conflict. However, given the fragile nature of the space environment, it behoves every state to act responsibly in order to avoid polluting entire orbits.

Space launches

Overall, Asia is proving to be the most active continent in terms of space launches. China successfully launched 21 vehicles of the 83 launched in 2016, just one less than the United States, while Russia launched 18 vehicles successfully out of 19. India added another seven launches to the Asian total in 2016, its Polar Space Launch Vehicle proving a very reliable and cost-effective means of launching large numbers of small satellites into the LEO. With launch costs as little as $20 million per launch—a fifth of Ariane 5 launch costs and a third of the cost of SpaceX’s Falcon X space launcher—the Indian PSLV looks to be well positioned to take advantage of a lucrative LEO market in the next few years. In fact, PSLV is set to launch a record 83 satellites in January 2017.[vi]

In May of last year, as a step towards developing a reusable launch vehicle that can return to the earth’s surface after having launched a spacecraft into orbit, India tested indigenous technology demonstrator of a reusable launch vehicle.[vii] While the flight only lasted around 20 minutes, it proved a number of technologies, such as autonomous navigation, guidance and control, reusable thermal-protection system, and re-entry mission management for this robotic spaceplane.

Elsewhere, Japan conducted four H-IIA launches throughout the year, including 16 satellites on 9 December, as well as the second launch of its Epsilon solid-fuel launcher, designed to launch scientific satellites, into the Medium Earth Orbit. It continues work on its H-III launcher, which should launch in the early 2020s.

Manned, lunar and deep space missions

Although civil in nature, many of the Asian manned, lunar and deep space missions are maturing. These are likely to also have geopolitical ramifications, not least because in China many of these missions are also run by the People’s Liberation Army.

According to a recent “White Paper on China’s Space Activities in 2016,”[viii] China made a successful trip to asteroid Toutatis in December 2012, a soft landing on the moon in 2013 with the Chang’e-3 lunar probe and is planning a return to the moon in 2017 to collect a sample with Chang’e 5. This will be followed up with a mission to the far side of the moon in 2018. It plans to send a mission to Mars by 2020 to carry out orbiting and roving activities. It also states ambitions for asteroid exploration and a Jupiter fly-by.

Japan, too, has conducted lunar missions. In 2007, as part of the SELENE mission, a lunar orbitor Kaguya observed the moon for over a year and crash-landeded in 2009 at the end of its mission. Japan is planning a lunar rover mission SELENE-2 in 2017 and a sample-collection mission SELENE-3 in 2020. Looking further afield, Japan has already conducted missions to observe a comet, Mars and Venus in 2015. It plans to return to Mars in 2018 with an orbiter and a rover.

The Indian lunar mission is known as Chandrayaan. Chandrayaan-1 was launched in 2008 with the aim to map the moon. Amongst its many notable successes was the discovery of water on the moon, which will be vital for human life support in the event of the establishment of a lunar base. A follow-up mission will be launched in 2017, and will deliver a lunar rover. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission Mangalyaan[ix] is currently celebrating its first year. A follow-up mission is expected some time in the period of 2018 to 2020. Follow-up missions to Venus and an asteroid mission have also been touted.[x]

In conclusion

Space underpins much of modern life, so much so that it is now considered a critical national infrastructure in some parts of the world. The sector is undergoing some dramatic changes. In the West, this change is driven by the commercial sector whereas Asian space programmes still remain largely government-driven. However, the sheer range and ambition of Asian space programmes is breath-taking and there is no sign that the pace of activity is slowing—quite the opposite.

China is rapidly closing the gap with the US with a series of ambitious projects and demonstrating extraordinary breadth and depth of expertise in military, commercial and scientific projects. It has developed a number of anti-satellite technologies, predominantly to deter the United States, but will itself become more vulnerable to anti-satellite attacks as its space infrastructure expands.

Russia continues to demonstrate its expertise in space launch, missile systems and electronic warfare. It has not invested heavily in its own satellite infrastructure beyond GLONASS but, despite some problems with reliability, continues to be a significant player on the international launch market and therefore crucial to the development of the global space community.

Japan, India and South Korea are keen to exploit the commercial and technological advantages, but are also investing steadily in a range of government programmes in response to increasingly bellicose neighbours. Unlike European counterparts who have opted to develop large-scale space projects through multinational organisations such as the European Space Agency , India and Japan have national ambitions for deep space, although they remain committed to international collaboration. India, in particular, looks well-poised to exploit the commercial space launch market. Its recent proposal to release satellite imagery data to the commercial sector in order to help drive a new market in data services is an inspired innovation.

The next five years will see a number of nations move towards lunar and deep space missions. If geopolitics continue to remain tense here on Earth, space missions are likely to be seen increasingly as expressions of that competition. While competition may well spur nations to speed up their plans for space in the short term, it could be extremely destructive in the long run. Furthermore, deep space missions are likely to be unmanned or robotic in the first instance. This lowers the risk calculus for would-be aggressors. A smashed robot is frustrating but unlikely to be the reason for a state to retaliate. Governments, commercial and scientific organisations will therefore need to be cognisant of the broader geopolitical environment in which they may be operating and take necessary precautions.

As the number of actors in space increases, it will become increasingly important for the international community to agree on space situational awareness, space traffic management and space debris removal in order to allow continued access to this important global common. However, the difficulties in trying to establish international norms in the cyber domain suggest that this will be far from simple.

This article was originally published in ‘Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century


[i] DigitalGlobe offers imagery at 30 cm resolution. Achieving resolution under 50 cm is normally considered impressive for national electro-optic earth observation satellites. “About Us,” DigitalGlobe, https://www.digitalglobe.com/about/our-company.

[ii] William Graham, “Indian PSLV lofts six Singaporean satellites,” Nasa Space Flight, December 15, 2015, https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2015/12/indian-pslv-six-singaporean-satellites/.

[iii] “Russian Space Surveillance System (RSSS),” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/world/russia/space-surveillance.htm.

[iv] “Chinese space surveillance,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/world/china/space-surveillance.htm.

[v] AFP, “Japan Is Launching A Military ‘Space Force’ To Protect Satellites From Space Debris,” Business Insider, August 4, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/japan-is-launching-a-military-space-force–its-first-mission-is-to-protect-satellites-from-space-debris-2014-8?IR=T.

[vi] PTI, “ISRO to launch 83 satellites in one go in Jan.,” The Hindu, December 1, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/ISRO-to-launch-83-satellites-in-one-go-in-Jan./article16730366.ece.

[vii] Dennis S. Jesudasan, “Indigenous technology demonstrator of reusable launch vehicle tested successfully,” The Hindu, May 23, 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/india-successfully-launches-reusable-launch-vehicle/article8635448.ece.

[viii] “China’s Space Activities in 2016,” Xinhua, December 27, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2016-12/27/c_135935416.htm.

[ix] Jonathan Amos, “Why India’s Mars mission is so cheap—and thrilling,” BBC, September 24, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29341850.

[x] Ted Ranosa, “India Plans Mission To Venus Following Success Of Mars Orbiter, Tech Times, July 23, 2015, http://www.techtimes.com/articles/71256/20150723/india-plans-mission-to-venus-following-success-of-mars-orbiter.htm.


About the Author

Observer Research Foundation
Observer Research Foundation
ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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