Written by Madhukara Putty.

India and China, two Asian giants, have long been famous for their rich history and culture. In the last decade or so, they have also been known for their determined pursuit of economic growth. Now there is yet another reason to stand up and take note – they are not just rising economic powers but also rising space powers. They, along with other ambitious countries like Japan and Israel, have been the face of what is often called the Asian space race.

It is fair to argue that the so-called Asian space race, a throwback to the Cold War competition between the erstwhile USSR and the USA, is a misnomer. However, some facts can’t be ignored. Only ten countries have the ability to launch satellites and six of them – India, China, Japan, Israel, Iran, and North Korea – are in Asia. Three of these countries – India, China, and Japan – have either placed a spacecraft around the Moon or landed one on the lunar surface. While an Indian spacecraft has been orbiting Mars since 2014, a few other Asian countries are about to launch theirs in 2020. With Japan being part of the International Space Station, China having its own, and India developing the capability to build one, the Asian countries are amassing significant expertise in the ultimate frontier. The need of the hour, however, is to utilise the expertise for peaceful purposes rather than to amplify the existing geopolitical tensions in the region.

Interestingly, these countries, which clearly are pursuing similar goals, started off with seemingly different objectives. From the beginning, India always saw space as a tool for nation building and pursued projects that had a direct influence on the lives of Indians. While China took to space for military purposes, Japan’s initial motivation came from a desire to ‘catch up’ with advanced space-faring nations.

Now, decades after their humble beginnings, these space programmes have evolved. India’s view of space as a means to solve real-life problems has expanded considerably over the decades. In addition to contributing immensely to the technological development of the nation, the Indian space programme has ventured well beyond the earth. Over the years, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), has gained a global reputation as a reliable and cost-effective launch platform. It has carried out several complex missions too: it launched space probes headed towards the Moon and Mars, and in 2017, in a single launch, it placed 104 satellites into low-earth orbits with remarkable precision. The recent successful maiden flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk-III is expected to enable India to launch heavier payloads to low-earth and geosynchronous orbits.

China has significantly expanded its space programme beyond its military applications. With a list of noteworthy achievements, it is the undisputed leader among the Asian space-faring nations. It has built a Space Lab in the low-earth orbit and recently demonstrated its ability to carry out cargo supply missions to the lab. It landed a rover on the Moon in 2013 and is attempting to put a lander on the far side of the moon. If successful, China would be the first country to accomplish the feat. It is the third country, after the US and Russia, to have the capability to send humans to space. However, quite alarmingly, China’s military and civilian space programmes continue to remain tightly coupled – a fact which calls for strong cooperation among other space-faring nations in the Asian region.

Japan started off its space program with the sole objective of developing cutting-edge technology. In contrast to India’s space programme, it didn’t matter whether such technologies were useful to the society or not. Such a technology-centric approach has helped Japan developed significant capabilities in building satellites and launch vehicles. It also participates in the International Space Station programme and has even carried out successful cargo missions to the Station.

More recently, Japan’s space programme has evolved from a technology-driven exercise to one that provides socio-economic benefits as well. This has provided a common ground to explore for Japanese and Indian space programmes – a fact reflected in the close cooperation between the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in the areas of earth observation and disaster prevention in the region. In addition, Japan and India’s historical approaches to the space sector complement each other and provide opportunities for bilateral cooperation to help both countries reach their scientific and strategic goals. A multilateral partnership among India, Japan, and Israel, based on their complementary strengths, would be effective in counterbalancing China’s rise as as a space power.

There are already some efforts in that direction. Under the framework of Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (an initiative driven by Japan), India and Japan have joined hands in disaster prevention efforts. At a regional level, India launched a satellite for the member nations of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).  The satellite has the potential to enhance communication and weather forecasting in the immediate vicinity of India. India is also about to build a ground station in Vietnam – a move that would enable Vietnam to use Indian remote sensing data, while serving India’s strategic interests in the region.

A recent phenomenon in the space sector is the entry of private players into each and every realm of activity. Not surprisingly, Asia is not left behind. Among the five teams that have reached the final stage of the Google Lunar XPrize, three are from Asia. Among them, the rovers built by the Indian and Japanese teams are carried by an Indian rocket, while the Israeli spacecraft is launched by an American rocket.  With frequent launches at lower costs, China’s commercial launch service providers are well placed to reduce the cost of access to space and make it affordable to a greater number of players.

Building on India’s tradition of using space for addressing real-life problems is an Indian startup that dreams to beam high bandwidth internet from Space. The company plans to have a constellation of 150 High Throughput Satellites in the low-earth orbit that take turns to provide internet even to the sparsely rural areas. The company is focussed on the developing world – part of the world from which the next billion internet users are going to come. If successful, this could well be the beginning of a transformation – a transformation made possible by space technology developed in Asia.

Madhukara Putty is a freelance science journalist and alumnus of the University of Nottingham. He tweets @MSPutty26. Image credit: CC by NASA/ESA/Flickr.

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