ISSN 2330-717X

Locating Turkey Within Outer Space Politics – Analysis


By Can Özcan and Xavier Quintana*

In 2001, the Turkish National Security Council approved a decision titled ‘Establishing a Turkish Space Agency’, and a draft law will be submitted to the Turkish Parliament in the second half of 2016. What accounts for Turkey’s late entry to develop a major space program along with the independent capability to access space? Is Turkey on a path to address this shortcoming? If not, why?

The politics of outer space involve planetary defense, asteroid mining, telecommunications, satellite projects, and the observation of Earth. The US-led Global Positioning System (GPS) is an integral part of space technology, whose function ranges from military survey and construction to farming, finance, and air traffic management. Russia, Japan and China are reluctant to be part of this system, and instead have followed their independent paths through the Glonass, Quasi-Zenith and Beidou systems respectively. International Space Law offers a limited mechanism to settle disputes on international outer space in relation to military activities and the deployment of weapons. The refusal of the US, Russia, and China to sign the Moon Treaty of 1979 was a crucial dimension in the creation of such a chaotic environment.

The US government’s leading role is quite apparent with its $64.42 billion space budget accounting for a quarter of the aggregate global space economy, which equals $261.61 billion. Annually, Japan spends $3.84 billion, China invests $3.08 billion, and India allocates $1.44 billion to their programs. The Indian Space Research Organization’s success in the launching of an orbiter to Mars in 2013 elevated their status to the elite league. The European Union, Russia, Israel, South Korea, South Africa, and Brazil are all able to secure their second tier roles due to their ability to launch domestic satellites independently.

The US’ space politics involve both collaboration and confrontation. India, China, Russia and Europe have joined the United States in the robotic exploration of the Moon. The International Space Station (ISS) represents a unique collaborative partnership between the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, and Russia. On the other hand, the US perceives China as being a law-broker to space security, which leads to a central bifurcation in East Asia’s space programs. This consists of the Chinese-led Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) on the one hand and the Japanese-led Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) on the other. Japan, working with Australia, is building on its accomplishments in asteroid sample return. Given the impossibility of acquiring US space and missile technology, a Chinese-led space alliance attracts many regional powers across cultures and geographies, such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, and Turkey, focusing on satellite projects and optical space observation systems. China’s limited export controls and relatively inexpensive technologies also offer the opportunity for Sino-Indian-Latin American space cooperation with countries such as Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Venezuela. Africa falls behind on international space competition despite seeking to establish a regional institution with strong leadership. Nigerian petro dollars seems to be the only financial source for such a position with the assistance of Tunisia and Northern Sudan.

The Turkish Space Program started in the 1990s. Competence in aeronautics and aerospace have been developed in institutes at TAI, Aselsan and Roketsan, organically tied to the Turkish Air Naval and Land Forces, which have fostered an aerospace cluster in the province of Ankara. Turkey Space Technologies Research Institute (TÜBITAK UZAY), a civilian space agency established in 1994 that coordinates the national space policy, is responsible for conducting research in space-related areas as well as developing satellite projects. It is a federal authority under the Ministry for Science, Technology and Innovation, and has been continuing the Turkish government’s efforts to promote the autonomy of the space sector. Turkey’s space efforts are conducted in further collaboration with Turkish Ministry of National Defense, Turkish Aerospace Industries, Aviation and Space Technologies of the Ministry of Transportation, State Planning Organization and public universities, specifically technoparks at Middle East Technical University (METU) and Bilkent University, both of which are located in Ankara as well.

Turkey possesses a small number of satellites developed by Turkish technology. Kazakhstan, China and Russia provided their soil for launching Turkish satellites such as BILSAT, GÖKTÜRK-1 and GÖKTÜRK-2. Turkish space technology is capable of providing services for agriculture, mining, smart transportation and disaster management. Turkey has now completed the first stage of space programs, consisting of technologically progressive, Earth-bound satellite projects to promote the local aerospace industry. Sending an orbiter to the Moon or Mars is still a ways out in the long-term projection. Turkey should establish a new role for the upcoming Turkish Space Agency, involving countrywide branches, delegation of research work, and the creation of a space for all participants in the space industry to communicate in order to invigorate commercialization of its space industry. For Turkish national space development, industrial development and technology catch-up needs to be prioritized.

Among many countries, the Latin American example provides a realistic example for Turkey. Brazilian aerospace industries are mainly driven by government investments with external assistance being received in the late 1970s (France), late 1980s (China) and mid 1990s (Russia). Brazil aims to reduce dependence on foreign satellites for telecommunications, weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, and territorial surveillance, including border regions. Space activities in Venezuela started in 1999, focused on the areas of telecommunications, earth observation and research. Bolivarian Agency of Space Activities (ABAE) was established in 2007 in close cooperation with mid-range regional powers such as Uruguay. Argentina’s space activities have been highly cooperative, involving a growing number of countries, including Italy, the USA, Denmark, Brazil, and France.

Space exploration predicts exciting developments in the next 40 years. Between 2020- 2030, we will be witnessing an establishment of a permanent scientific base at the south pole of the Moon, the arrival of nuclear probes on Uranus and Neptune, human tourism on the Moon, and robotic sample return missions from comets and asteroids. Between 2030-2040, a permanent human presence on Mars and robotic mining missions to asteroids and the Moon are expected. Additionally, the terraforming of Mars is a major goal for the 2050s. Within this picture, the Turkish government needs to establish alliances in space politics out of the dominance of identity politics in its foreign policy. Escalation of armed conflicts in the Middle East will boost military expenditures in the near future, which might create competition in the creation of space exploration budgets. Turkey should refrain from forming outer space alliances on sectarian terms with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Northern Sudan and Nigeria. These countries might attract Turkey with their petro-dollars, yet they would not offer any concrete outcomes with an additional possible repercussion of isolating Turkey from the space race. Turkey’s ongoing institutional cooperation with China under APSCO, its affinity with the European Space Agency, and its organic ties with the US military need to be reinforced along with future collaborations with India, Brazil and South Africa.

*About the authors:
Can Özcan is an Associate Instructor at the Department of Languages and Literature at the University of Utah, teaching Turkish language, politics, and foreign policy.

Xavier Quintana is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Anthropology at the University of Utah, focusing on Turkey, the Republic of Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

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JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

One thought on “Locating Turkey Within Outer Space Politics – Analysis

  • February 16, 2016 at 2:14 am

    The US space budget (NASA and NOAA) is around USD 20 billion, as manifested in White House budget request for 2016-17. Lately, it has not exceeded 0.5 per cent of the annual budget request. I would urge that the authors check other figures too such as the size of global space economy, which according to several reports, has grown to USD 320 billion.


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