Starship Enterprise

This is an article published in our May 2017 Issue.

Formosat-7/COSMIC-2 mission
The US and ROC have agreed to launch the follow-on Formosat-7/COSMIC-2 mission, which will see six satellites launched in 2017, followed by a further six in 2020. (Surrey Satellite Technology)

While much attention is paid by Asia-Pacific to the maritime, land and air domains, there is a regional push to develop space capabilities across the region. These efforts are manifesting themselves into a regional ‘space race’ between rival nations.

This space race reflects a similar one played out during the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union that began in the 1950s and aimed to showcase national prowess and technological ingenuity via increasingly ambitious space-based goals, arguably culminating in the US’ Apollo programme which saw that country send astronauts to the moon between 1969 and 1972. While the Cold War is now over, space exploration and supremacy remain key aims for both the US and Russia, which continue as spacefaring nations.

Wikimedia Commons
Space is important to nations across Asia for a range of reasons, including economic advancements, sovereignty and for national defence, with capabilities varying between different regional powers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Final Frontiers

Now a similar struggle is evident in the Asia-Pacific. Japan and the People’s Republic of China made early gains in this sphere, launching satellites into space in the 1970s, but other nations such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), India and the Republic of Korea are now striving to play catch up, and there are a number of factors driving this area of development: “Space is important to these countries for multiple reasons,” Bill Ostrove, principal space analyst at Forecast International, a research company, told AMR, adding that it is an important driver of technological and economic development: “China has successfully sold satellites and launch services around the world. In recent years, India has also become a major player on the commercial launch market, especially its PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle), which has become popular among small satellite operators.”

The PSLV has been in service for some 20 years, having launched a number of satellite types into space for 19 countries, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation (IRSO). These include the Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission, the Space Capsule Recovery Experiment and the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System. India received a lot of attention for its Mars Obiter Mission (MOM), which was launched in 2013, in particular, Mr. Ostrove said. On 15th February, the PSLV demonstrated its ability to carry 104 satellites into orbit at one time, which was hailed as being “a landmark in the history of our space programme”, according to a letter from AS Kiran Kumar, India’s secretary for space. This is the largest amount of satellites ever carried using one launcher, and the achievement was also praised by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “This remarkable feat by ISRO is yet another proud moment for our space scientific community and the nation. India salutes our scientists,” Mr. Modi said on social media: “The capabilities that the satellites provide are also important for the economic development of the region,” Mr. Ostrove continued: “Communications satellites broadcast video and provide the backbone for growing data networks; weather satellites provide meteorological data important for travel, trade, and military operations; and remote sensing satellites provide data on forestry, agriculture, and the environment.”

Mars exploration
India has made advancements in Mars exploration, using an orbiter to map the characteristics of the planet for scientific research, plus to explore the possibility of life on Mars. (ISRO)

Pride is also of importance to nations throughout the region, and as they become more active on the world stage, the position they hold as ‘space powers’ is paramount to their image, Mr. Ostrove added. In addition to the MOM achievement gained by India, the PRC also gained prestige for its methodical human space exploration development, Mr. Ostrove said, with the most recent accomplishment being the launch of its second space station, the Tiangong-2, that entered the heavens in September 2016, to which Beijing will send several crews to over the next year: “Finally, space is an important part of defence capabilities for Asia-Pacific countries,” he added: “Japan, India, and China are all investing heavily in military satellites for both reconnaissance and communications. The (DPRK) is also developing military capabilities, especially in its efforts to develop and build rockets, which can delivery satellites to space, but also warheads to its enemies.”

Prime Directives

This latter development in the Asia-Pacific space race is concerning, given North Korea’s strained relations with most world powers, and its seemingly intense desire to become a regional force to fear. The development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), which typically have a range in excess of 2969.7 nautical miles (5500 kilometres) is one of the more disturbing areas of progress, as a projectile of this kind that uses a period of spaceflight to gain speed would enable long-range firings that could reach the continental United States, and to potential carry a nuclear warhead to targets there. Nuclear ICBM ownership is typically used as a deterrent, but it is unclear if this is the case when it comes to the DPRK. Underground nuclear weapons testing has been carried out by the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ since 2006, with Pyongyang claiming two successful tests in 2016, despite the nation promising to give up nuclear development in 2005. Even the DPRK’s only regional ally the PRC has condemned recent nuclear testing, joining 14 other members of the United Nations Security Council in issuing a joint statement in 2016 criticising Pyongyang regarding the consequences of its ongoing testing. Additionally, in his 2017 new year address, the DPRK’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, claimed that the country was planning on continuing its nuclear testing, and was planning demonstrations of an ICBM at some point this year: “We conducted the first (Hydrogen bomb) test, test-firing of various means of strike and nuclear warhead tests successfully to cope with the imperialists’ nuclear war threats, which were growing more wicked day by day, briskly developed state-of-the-art military hardware, and entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile; we achieved other marvellous successes one after another for the consolidation of the defence capability,” Mr. Kim. Following these statements, on 6th March, four ballistic missiles of an unknown type were launched by Pyongyang, three of which are assumed by Japan to have landed in that country’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone): “Today, it seems that (the DPRK) launched four ballistic missiles almost simultaneously in an easterly direction from the proximity of Tongch’ang-ri on the west coast of (the country),” the Japanese Ministry of Defence (MOD) said in a 6th March statement: “It is presumed that the missiles travelled approximately 539.9nm (1000km) and fell into the Sea of Japan … It is also presumed that three of the missiles fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.” The MoD warned that the country: “can in no way tolerate this act as it is clear provocation to Japan’s security as well as regional security.”

While Mr. Ostrove could not talk to the ICBM development specifically, he noted that space developments by North Korea, particularly rockets, are both strategic and political in nature: “They see these capabilities as a key to their defence,” he said: “It’s also a source of national pride, which is very important for an authoritarian regime. It gives them something to show their people.” Additionally, the DPRK’s rocket-related activities have the added benefit of riling the neighbouring ROK and its US ally: “Another important strategy of an authoritarian regime is to demonstrate outside threats,” Mr. Ostrove said.

The developments each nation is making in space varies in terms of type and sophistication, with Japan leading the way, according to Mr. Ostrove. One area that Japan is exploring is the removal of space debris, which it deems a “serious threat on humankind’s use of outer space in the future”, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) spokesperson told AMR. However, in February an attempt by JAXA to test the possibility of clearing some of this space debris by using a tether attached to a Russian Progress cargo ship that had just returned from a resupply mission to the International Space Station, failed. It is believed that the tether did not deploy, but JAXA has not yet revealed the reason the mission failed: “Removal of space debris (is a) common and urgent issue for all,” the spokesperson said: “JAXA will continue technology development to realise active debris removal: “Now we are analysing the possible causes of the failure (but the) study is not fixed yet,” the JAXA spokesperson continued. JAXA added that four to five launches are carried out by the agency per year, which includes the Mitsubishi H-IIA and H-IIB rockets plus the JAXA-developed Epsilon rocket: “JAXA is conducting activities in line with the peaceful use of outer space, in an integrated and programmatic manner,” the spokesperson continued. Mitsubishi develops a significant amount of Japanese space technology, which a company spokesperson told AMR is one of eight key growth areas the firm is working on: “We supply satellites in the fields of communication and broadcasting, observation, as well as navigation,” the spokesperson said. “As far as sales are concerned, we recorded sales of approximately $800 million during the 2015 Japanese fiscal year in our space systems business.” The company could not disclose how much business comes from the domestic versus international markets, nor could is say how much is made up of military sales versus commercial.

JAXA’s H-IIB rocket
JAXA’s H-IIB rocket carries out its first stage captive firing test in 2009, which tested the engine and countdown to take-off, and ultimately led to the maiden voyage of the vehicle to resupply the International Space Station. (JAXA)

Mr. Ostrove noted that Japan has a very close relationship with the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and European Space Agency (ESA), particularly in designing and launching science satellites. He added that the country typically forms partnerships for its science satellites. An example of this is the ASTRO-G built in partnership with ESA, although the ASTRO-H X-ray astronomy satellite that was built in partnership with NASA was lost after launch in 2016.

H-IIA launch vehicle 30 carrying the ASTRO-H X-ray astronomy satellite at on 17th February 2016 from the Tanegashima Space Centre on Tanegashima Island. (JAXA)
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and JAXA launch the H-IIA launch vehicle 30 carrying the ASTRO-H X-ray astronomy satellite at on 17th February 2016 from the Tanegashima Space Centre on Tanegashima Island. (JAXA)

While Japan takes the lead, India and the PRC lag behind slightly, Mr. Ostrove added, although they are both making progress in catching up with Tokyo in space development, while he DPRK is not nearly as advanced. Mr. Ostrove noted that in many cases over the past four to five years, spacecraft reliability has eclipsed that of Russia across the Asia-Pacific, while costs are lower than in Western countries in terms of both development and launch.

The PRC’s space programme has been less cooperative, he noted, due in part to export restrictions on satellite components imposed by the US on Beijing since 2011, which has resulted in NASA being banned from cooperating with China: “These limitations also make it difficult for ESA to work with China, since ESA satellites typically use at least some US-built components, and (ESA also has to cooperate) with NASA scientists,” Mr. Ostrove noted. In the same vain, the DPRK has also largely developed its space industry by itself, he added, due to technology embargoes against the country that are in place from European governments, and from the US as a result of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
India on the other hand is increasingly working with other countries, particularly the US. One example would be the NISAR environmental remote sensing satellite that the two nations are cooperating on. According to NASA, NISAR is planned for launch in 2020. The partnership leads on from previous collaborations between NASA and ISRO, including India’s Chandrayan-1 lunar and Mangalyaan Mars missions, plus on NASA’s QuikSCAT and ISRO’s OCEANSAT Earth observation missions: “NISAR would be the first collaborative project where both the technical and programmatic contributions are balanced at the mission level, with major hardware contributions (from) both organizations,” NASA said in a 2014 paper discussing the NISAR project. Mr. Ostrove observed that overall, a trend has emerged that has seen Asia-Pacific nations work with other nations on the “peaceful aspects of space,” which includes commercial launches and scientific cooperation.

A Continuing Mission

Cooperation between nations in the region on the other hand is very rare, with space players in the region opting to team with entities such as Europe, the US or Russia. In addition to the more prolific nations researching space exploration, there is also work being carried out in the less known space-driven nations in the region, including the Republic of China and the ROK: “While those countries are not making major technological advances (they) operate important weather and remote sensing satellite networks,” Mr. Ostrove added. One project of interest in Taiwan is the Formosat/Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) programme, which involved a series of small weather satellites built and operated in cooperation with NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) being launched in 2006. Off the back of COSMIC-1, which is still to some degree in operation, the USA and the ROC have agreed to move on to launch the Formosat-7/COSMIC-2 mission. This will see six satellites launched into low-inclination orbits in 2017, the COSMIC consortium behind the mission says on its website, followed by a further six into high-inclination orbits in 2020. NOAA is leading on the US side, while the ROC’s National Space Organisation is taking care of that nation’s aspect. The US Air Force is also partnering on COSMIC-2, providing two space weather payloads that will fly on the first six satellites. The first will be a radio frequency beacon transmitter and the second ion velocity metre instruments: “The COSMIC-2 mission will provide a revolutionary increase in the number of atmospheric and ionospheric observations, which will greatly benefit the research and operational communities,” according to the COSMIC programme office website.

Formosat-7/COSMIC-2 mission
The US and ROC have agreed to launch the follow-on Formosat-7/COSMIC-2 mission, which will see six satellites launched in 2017, followed by a further six in 2020. (Surrey Satellite Technology)

To Boldly Go

With regards to the strategic aim that the Asia-Pacific is hoping to achieve through the use of space technology, there is often a blur between military and commercial applications, as nations in the region strive to make advancements in both domains that quite often cross over: “Most of the space technology development in (the Asia-Pacific) comes on the civil and commercial side, such as the development of launch vehicles (although the basic rocket technology can have dual use) and science satellites,” Mr. Ostrove noted: “However, at times, it can be difficult to differentiate between civil and military space in Asia.” He said that this is most notable in the PRC, but there is also evidence of it in India where, for example, that country’s Insat satellite network consists of both military and civil communications and weather satellites. This is one way in which rapid developments can be made in the Asia-Pacific, in order to help boost industrial advancements in both the commercial and military spheres.

While the respective programmes in the region have faced certain challenges, this is no more than other nations outside of the region with more advanced offerings have previously had to overcome, notably during the US-Soviet space race. The use of space technology is seemingly offering a strategic advantage for nations in this region, while simultaneously bolstering industry with new offerings for export as well as domestic consumption. Space is now not only exclusive to the world’s leading powers. It is now being accessed by an array of nations that wish to make their mark in this dimension, and take their technological advancements to outer space for the sake of sovereignty, strategy, and a sense of equality with other nations beyond the Asia-Pacific.

by Beth Stevenson