Is there a Sino-Indian space race?

23 May 2009


For quite sometime now western space analysts have been projecting the view that India is competing with its neighbouring Communist giant China in the race to dominate the final frontier. India's Chandrayaan-1 mission to orbit the moon, launched in October 2008 and China's first lunar probe Chang'e-1, which orbited in October 2007, have been described as exercises to boost the national prestige of the two most populous Asian countries.

Both Chandrayaan-1 and Chang'e-1 had fairly similar scientific objectives. While China's Chang'e-1 terminated its 16-month mission with impact on the lunar surface on 1 March this year, Chandrayaan-1 continues to study the lunar features in addition to exploring for the presence of water and Helium-3, a clean and abundant source of energy.

Both countries have a firm eye on the moon's resources. While India has hinted at its eventual aim of mining for lunar resources, China is thinking of setting up a base on the moon. Interestingly, both India and China have announced plans to send a landing mission to the moon in the first half of the next decade. But while China is edging close to firming up its plan for a manned landing mission, the Indian Space Research Organisation has made it clear that a manned moon landing project would be taken up only if it is ''totally justified''.

At the moment, a manned mission to the moon is not on the radar of ISRO. But on more than one occasion its chairman G Madhavan Nair has driven home the point that India should keep up its space exploration drive. ''As far as space is concerned, India can be described as a developed country,'' Nair has quipped.

But China could probably steal a march where a manned mission is concerned. Michael Griffin, the outgoing chief of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has expressed the view that China could well attempt a manned lunar orbit flight. ''Technically they will be able to do a circumlunar mission. Whether they will choose to do it or not depends upon the goals of their political leadership,'' observes Griffin.

China has so far accomplished three successful manned space missions. In September 2008 it carried out its third such mission on the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft. This manned mission was conspicuous for the widely publicised space-walk by its astronauts.

China is also looking at the possibility of a docking experiment. It plans to fly the Shenzhou-8 by 2012 for docking with a free-flying research module called Tiangang-1. As envisaged now, Tiangang-1 would be a major step towards putting in place an autonomous orbiting complex. And while China hopes to launch a space station by 2020, India at this point appears to have no specific plan for putting in place an orbital complex.

Chinese objectives clear
The objectives of the multi-faceted Chinese space programme are outlined in a white paper brought out in 2006. It observes among other things, ''The aims of China's space activities are to explore outer space to meet the demands of economic construction, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress, and to raise the scientific quality of the Chinese people, protect China's national interests and rights, and build up the comprehensive national strength.'' India has not outlined any such clear-cut agenda.

Western space analysts believe India's plan for a manned flight in 2015 is in reaction to China' strides in this area. As things stand now, ISRO plans to send a two-person space capsule complete with life support systems, emergency mission abort and crew rescue provisions on board a version of the three0stage GSLV-MKII vehicle.

As part of this programme, ISRO has tied up with Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM), a part of the Indian Air Force, to work towards setting up a well equipped crew training facility in Bangalore. While ISRO has already come out with a design of the capsule for the proposed manned flight, how it would develop or obtain the necessary technology is unclear. But it is speculated that India will take Russian assistance for its manned flight.

The Chinese manned mission too had depended heavily on Soviet assistance and expertise. Not only were the Chinese astronauts trained by Russians but also China made use of some of the technologies used in Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for developing its own human rated spaceship Shenzhou.

Moreover, with the Chinese defence set-up closely involved with Chinese space activities, its manned missions of China have also benefited heavily from the expertise available at various institutions under its People's Liberation Army.

Nair believes that India is not in any kind of race or competition with China. ''Our projects and programmes are based on our own requirements and we are not influenced by any extraneous developments while arriving at our priorities,'' says Nair. Right from the outset, the thrust of the essentially civilian space programme in India has been on harnessing the advances in space technology to spur national development.

Thus, the Indian programme has focused on areas like using the potential of space technology for rural development, infrastructure improvement, telemedicine, communications, water resources exploration, natural resources management, agriculture, disaster warning, weather forecasting and related areas of national development.

RISAT-2 However, India has not neglected defence either, as shown by ISRO's recent launch of the Israeli-built RISAT-2 spy satellite on its PSLV launch workhorse, along with the peaceful, student-built micro satellite Anusat.

It must be said to the credit of the Indian space programme that despite having to start from scratch, without any outside assistance, today India has come to be recognised as a space power capable of ''doing things on its own'' . Moreover, being a fully civilian venture operating in a democratic set up, the Indian space programme is subject to public scrutiny and media criticism.

'Peaceful' India v 'militaristic' China
On the other hand, the defence oriented Chinese space venture enjoyed a number of advantages. To begin with, the Chinese space programme in its formative days was headed by Chine Hsueh, a US trained aerospace engineer who had previously worked on space projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition, the Russians made available key elements of missile technology to China, which it exploited for developing its space vehicles.

The anti satellite test carried out by China in early 2007 provided a clear indicator of China's plan to perfect ''space war techniques''. However, India has consistently opposed the misuse of outer space for testing weapons. In fact, Chinese keenness to develop a range of space weapons has been construed as a definitive threat to India's ''space assets''.

A recent report from Japan's National Institute for Defence Studies says, ''It is likely that China will continue to actively engage in space development in the years ahead, given that such development serve as a vital means of achieving military competitiveness and raising national prestige. The organisations involved in China's space development programme share strong ties with the PLA and a large proportion of the satellites launched and operated by China are believed to be for military purposes.''

China is also building a new family of heavy lift off space vehicles to support its long term space and defence projects. The Chinese constellation of satellites for earth imaging, reconnaissance, surveillance, telecommunications and navigation are regulated by its defence forces.

Both India and China are actively involved in promoting the hardware, services and expertise they have developed for their space activities in the multi billion dollar global space market. And both the countries have covered some ground in making their presence felt in the global space market place.

As part of their plans to become major players in the area of commercial satellite launch services, both countries are involved in developing launch vehicles to meet the specific requirements of global customers. However, both India and China will have to reckon with US export regulations, which put roadblocks in the way of the launch of satellites made in USA or satellites featuring US made components atop Indian or Chinese launch vehicles.

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