November 06, 2007

The new space order

The launch by Japan and China of their first lunar orbiter rekindles a scramble for space not seen since the launch of Sputnik 50 years ago.

By Nicola Casarini for ISN Security Watch (06/11/07)

Successful space programs have become an essential element of great power status. The launch of China's first lunar orbiter, Chang’e, at the end of October and Japan's blasting off of the Kaguya lunar probe a month before reflect the increasing interest of the great powers in projecting their influence above the skies.

Alongside the traditional space powers of the Cold War era - the US and Russia - a new host of actors is joining this exclusive club: China, Japan, India and the EU now have the independent capability to place satellites into orbit, including the indigenous production of the necessary launch vehicles. Their space programs are increasingly geared toward the moon and Mars.

Several other countries - including Israel, South Korea, Brazil, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey and Taiwan - are at various stages of development of their own satellite production and launcher capabilities, striving to gain acceptance in the uppermost club.

An exclusive club
Space exploration produces significant commercial and scientific spin-offs, which in turn play an important role in the lives of millions of people: satellite communications for global coverage, earth observations for weather forecasts, monitoring natural disasters, reconnaissance for better utilization of natural resources as well as exploitation of materials from the solar system.

A comprehensive space policy has thus become of paramount importance to furthering national objectives and improving the quality of life of people worldwide. Successful space missions also boost patriotic sentiments at home and prowess abroad. They have now become an integral part of a great power's foreign policy toolbox.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US has gained the upper hand in space. Washington has achieved primacy in the sector due to the state-of-the-art of its space missions - in particular the Space Shuttle program - and the wide acceptance of the Pentagon-led Global Positioning System (GPS), which gives the US a dominant status in satellite communications.

The US military makes extensive use of space for intelligence, information and precision targeting. As dependence on space increases, concerns have grown about the potential for adversaries to attack US space assets. Washington's space doctrine is now set on maintaining dominance of the sector while seeking to deny the use of space assets by its adversaries. The US seems to be reluctant when it comes to cooperating and sharing its advanced space technology with other nations, even in the case of its European allies - a situation that has pushed other space-faring nations to cooperate among themselves.

Russia is trying to regain its old superpower status in space through international cooperation with other actors such as the EU, China and India. In December 2005, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Moscow agreed on a space partnership that entailed boosting Russia's struggling manned space program with European technology in return for access to Russia's considerable expertise in the field.

Russia has also entered into agreements with China and India on space exploration. As part of its newly found assertiveness, Moscow is intent on upgrading its own satellite system, GLONASS, and plans are underway for human missions to the moon and Mars.

Europe has also joined in the space race. In 2002, the EU kicked off the Galileo global navigation satellite system as a civilian alternative to the military-led American GPS and Russian GLONASS. Back in 2001, the ESA launched the Aurora program, aimed at enhancing human exploration of the solar system with the ultimate objective of manned missions to Mars by 2030.

In April this year, the European Commission and the ESA released the European Space Policy, emphasizing international cooperation and the sharing of space technology for peaceful uses. Europe's multilateral approach to space is in stark contrast to the isolationist space doctrine of the US.

But while the West walks different paths on space, the main challenge to Washington's primacy is arising in the East.

Asia takes off
China has made dramatic forays into space. Beijing has a well-developed commercial satellite launch industry and a space sector notable for the exchange of personnel and technology between the civilian and military sectors. The country's leadership is intent on modernizing China's space forces to counter the technologically advanced US military. The anti-satellite test launch of January 2007 sent the message that Beijing is now capable of seriously affecting US space assets in the area.

In October 2005, China launched its second manned rocket, Shenzhou 6, and plans are underway for Shenzhou 7, which will involve a space walk. After the launch of China's first lunar orbiter last month, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist for China's moon program, declared in a statement republished in local media: "Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country's comprehensive national power and is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people's cohesion."

The next step will be to land a Chinese astronaut on the moon, a target that is planned for 2020. In September, Michael Griffin, head of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said he believed that the Chinese would reach the moon before the US returned, adding that "I think when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it."

Japan also is racing to the moon. Tokyo succeeded in putting its first satellite into orbit around the moon in September, a month before China. Japan's lunar mission is said to be the largest since the US Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition.

Earlier this year, Japan also succeeded in putting a network of spy satellites - the Daichi - into orbit with the intention of challenging the Chinese navigation satellite network - the so called Compass or Beidou system - whose fifth satellite of the constellation was launched in June this year with the expectation of being operational in 2008.

While China and Japan are keeping an close eye on each other's space programs, India is working on a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which will be launched in April 2008. In addition, New Delhi is planning a manned spacecraft to orbit low-earth by 2014, and also has ambitions to send an Indian astronaut to the moon by 2020.

Emerging space powers
Elsewhere, South Korea aims to be among the world's top 10 space powerhouses. The country is expected to launch the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1) - along with an experimental satellite - in December, and is preparing for a moon orbiter in the near future. The country has sent so far 10 communication and multipurpose satellites into space, with the latest, Arirang-2, put into orbit in July 2006.

South Korea is actively working on the Naro Space Center, which will boost the country's indigenous space program and launch capability. After the KSLV-1, South Korea plans to begin development of the KSLV-2 with the goal of becoming completely independent in building its own satellites and rockets and sending them into space.

Taiwan also is aiming at self-sufficiency. The country's National Space Organization (NSPO) has recently drawn up Taipei's second 15-year space technology development plan, which calls for the advancement of indigenous satellite launch capability in order to be able to put the first microsatellite into orbit by 2010. Taiwan currently has three satellites in orbit - FORMOSAT 1, 2 and 3 - and plans are underway for FORMOSAT-4 to be developed with the US.

Israel, Brazil, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey are warming up for the scramble. Their space doctrines are very much dictated by national strategic considerations: achieve independent access to space; foster national economic development; increase capability and credibility of their space programs to gain international recognition and cooperation with the other leading space powers.

As a result, space is fast becoming a crowded place where both traditional and unexpected alliances can be much more easily forged and dissolved than on earth. Western countries such as Canada, Australia, Italy and Sweden have built satellites that have been subsequently launched by their ally, the US.

China and India are now seeking to challenge Washington's dominance of the launch industry as well as emerge as low-cost competitors in the manufacturing of satellites for the would-be space powers.

In September, India sent a spy satellite into orbit on behalf of Israel, a traditional client of the US launch industry. A few months earlier, New Delhi put Italy's Agile satellite into orbit. In May, Beijing succeeded in launching a Chinese-manufactured communications satellite into orbit on behalf of Nigeria, and a similar satellite is expected to be launched on behalf of South Africa and Brazil.

In the years to come, the outer skies and the solar system are likely to witness a mix of both competition and cooperation among the great and emerging space powers. For the sake of earth, it is hoped that cooperation and peace, rather than the weaponization of space, will gain the upper hand.

Nicola Casarini is Jean Monnet Fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (Florence).

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