Asia's space tigers bare their teeth
By Nicola Casarini
Asia's main powers are warming up for a big space race. China launched its first lunar orbiter, the Chang'e-1, on a Long March 3A rocket last week. Japan had sent its Kaguya lunar probe a month earlier. India, South Korea and Taiwan are preparing to join in.
This race is largely driven by what scholars call "techno-nationalism". Successful space missions generate pride domestically and demonstrate prowess internationally.
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist for China's moon program, declared in an interview with the official People's Daily that the
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". In a region riddled with competing nationalisms, the development of indigenous space programs could well turn the race into serious disputes. But space also contains the seeds for regional cooperation.
Chang'e-1 completed its about 2 million kilometer journey to the moon this week and entered its working orbit about 200 kilometers above the surface, where it will conduct scientific exploration.
"The probe's precise entry into the [working] orbit has laid a solid foundation for its future work, and we are confident that Chang'e-1 will continue to fulfill the aims step by step," the official Chinese media said.
The dragon's long march into space
China has made dramatic achievements in space. Compared to the US, Chinese space technology is not state-of-the-art. However, compared to other Asian countries, China has a well-developed commercial satellite launch industry and its space program is also notable for the exchange of personnel and technology between the civilian and military sectors.
China's space missions aim to foster both the economic and military sectors. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Chinese policy-makers have emphasized the link between the space and information fields as well as the need for China to modernize its space forces to counter the technologically advanced US military. The killing of one of its own satellites in January demonstrated China's new assertiveness and capacity to seriously affect US space assets in the area.
Space programs also boost high-tech skills. According to Zhang Wei, a senior official with the Chinese National Space Administration, "China needs its lunar and manned flight projects to nurture the aerospace industry." In October 2005, China launched its second manned rocket, the Shenzhou-6, and plans are underway for the Shenzhou-7, which will involve a space walk.
Space touches to the heart of national development. China's lunar mission in October coincided with the end of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 17th National Congress. The event was widely broadcast to show China's current achievements under the CCP regime. The national anthem and 31 patriotic songs were uploaded onto the satellite so that it could send the music back to Earth and prove Beijing's greatness.
Great powers in contest
Japan is the Asian country that seeks more strongly to balance China's rise. In September, Tokyo succeeded in putting its first satellite into orbit around the moon, thus outpacing China.
Officials at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Center claim that the US$279 million lunar probe - the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE) launched aboard a H-2A rocket from Tanegashima island - is the largest lunar mission since the US Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition. Japan launched a moon probe in 1990, but it was a fly-by mission. It had to cancel a moon shot in 2004, the LUNAR-A, after repeated mechanical and budgetary problems. With the SELENE mission, Japan has re-entered the moon race.
In February, with the launch of the fourth and final satellite, Tokyo succeeded in establishing a network of spy satellites - the Daichi - that can peer at any point of the globe. This will boost Japan's ability to independently gather intelligence on trouble spots anywhere as well as lessen its reliance on the US.
It will also challenge the Chinese satellite network. The same month, Beijing launched a Long March 3-A rocket that sent a navigation satellite into orbit as part of its effort to build a global positioning system. The satellite is the fourth of the Compass navigation system that is expected to be operational in 2008. While China and Japan race head-to-head, India is warming up to join in.
New Delhi is working on a lunar orbiter, the Chandrayaan-1, to be launched next spring and plans are under way to send a manned spacecraft to low-Earth orbit by 2014 and a mission to the moon by 2020. India is committed to increasing its space assets and capabilities. At the beginning of February, India's chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshall Shashi P Tyagi, declared that the "Indian air force is in the process of establishing an aerospace command to exploit outer space."
The establishment of a military command alongside the Indian Space Research Organization indicates New Delhi's interest in the commercial and military uses of space technology. However, India's technological prowess and space budget remain well behind its ambitions. It is also challenged by a new breed of space tigers.
Space tigers grow
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 2007 and prepare for a moon orbiter in the near future. The first South Korean astronaut is expected to travel into space next April, on board a rocket made jointly by Russia and South Korea.
So far, Seoul has relied on foreign boosters to launch its satellites. The country has sent 10 communications and multipurpose satellites into space, with the latest, the Arirang-2, being put into orbit in July 2006. South Korea plans to become completely self-sufficient in this sector, thanks to Russian technology.
In October 2006, Seoul and Moscow signed the Technology Safeguard Agreement (TSA) that will allow South Korea to access the needed technology to achieve self-reliance. However, the Russian Duma (parliament) has not yet ratified the TSA, due to US pressure. Washington fears that with an enhanced satellite-launch program that could be adapted to produce long-range ballistic missiles, Seoul would gain leverage against surrounding nations and be able to hit not only North Korea, but also large areas of China and Japan, thus threatening the balance of power in Northeast Asia and escalating the region's space race.
Notwithstanding Washington's concerns, South Korea is actively working on its first space center. The 300 billion won (US$323 million) Naro Space Center on Naro island in Goheung, scheduled for completion in 2008, is intended to boost South Korea's indigenous space program. This year, the director of the center, Min Kyung-ju, said in an interview that "once the facility is fully operational, the country will be able to achieve its goal of building a satellite and rocket with local technology and launching it into space from its own launch center".
After the KSLV-1, South Korea plans to start development of the KSLV-2, which will utilize indigenous technology exclusively. A successful launch of the KSLV-2 will make Seoul the eighth country in the world to be able to build its own satellites and rockets and send them into space. And it could soon be joined by another space tiger.
Taiwan's National Space Organization (NSPO) has recently drawn up the nation's second 15-year Space Technology Development Plan (STDP). With a budget of T$27 billion (US$833 million), it calls for the development of indigenous satellite launch capability to be able to put the first micro-satellite into orbit by 2010. The previous 15-year STDP, which aimed at developing rockets capable of launching satellites, was abandoned due to US opposition.
Taiwan currently has three satellites in orbit (FORMOSAT 1, 2 and 3), developed in collaboration with foreign contractors and launched by US providers. The latest development is a joint Taiwan-US FORMOSAT-3/COSMIC which is a constellation of six micro-satellites, and plans are underway for the FORMOSAT-4.
The NSPO also succeeded in launching its sixth sounding rocket (a suborbital rocket in the thermosphere). However, Taiwan's ultimate objective remains the same: indigenous satellite design and launch capability, with all the security and strategic implications that this may entail for cross-strait relations and, more generally, Northeast Asia's strategic balance.
As above ... not so below? Asian nations' buoyant space programs reflect the region's rise and its new assertiveness. Space missions bring along commercial and scientific benefits. They boost patriotic sentiment at home and prowess abroad.
Space nationalism also has the potential to trigger regional tensions. But space could also become, if used wisely by Asian leaders, a powerful symbol for boosting regional identity. For instance, the creation of a pan-Asian space agency could well contribute to promote in orbit the kind of reconciliation and cooperative behavior that seems sometimes so difficult to achieve on Earth.