For decades, the space race was dominated by two countries — Russia and the U.S. But now India and China are among a group of countries creeping up on the two superpowers, challenging their dominance not only in exploration but also in the commercial space sector and, critically, in the use of space for military purposes.
The trend hasn’t gone unnoticed. In his address to Congress Tuesday night, Donald Trump pushed America’s space program into the national conversation, outlining his lofty ambitions in space and vowing to put “American footprints on distant worlds” by 2026 — a nod to the U.S.’s 250th birthday.
Meanwhile, last month India set a record when it launched more than 100 satellites on a single rocket, only three of which were Indian. (The previous record, held by Russia, had been 37.) Thanks to lower costs for launches — up to 70 percent cheaper by some estimates — India is able to undercut not only U.S. competition but also similar services offered in China. That said, the Chinese commercial space business is booming, but due to security concerns, it’s often a less attractive option for private companies than India.
Though commercial advancements are notable, it’s the advancements in satellite technology for military purposes that’s causing U.S. officials the most heartburn. The number of countries using satellite technology to enhance their military arsenals continues to grow, as does the ability of other countries to disrupt and destroy U.S. satellites.
“Future conflicts on Earth are more likely to have a space component,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. “This is a brave new world they really haven’t had to deal with before, and it is something that really concerns the U.S. military.”
When it comes to military advancements, China has positioned itself as the biggest threat to American and Russian dominance in space.
China’s space program has long lagged behind the U.S. — it didn’t launch its first satellite until 1970, by which time Neil Armstrong had been to the moon and back. China’s first successful manned mission didn’t blast off until 2003, and its first space lab was launched in 2011, almost 40 years after NASA’s.
But China has big plans for space. Last year, on China’s first National Day of Space Flight, President Xi Jinping touted his country’s dream of becoming “an aerospace power,” and with increasing budgets and steady advancements, China looks poised to challenge Russia and the U.S. as the pre-eminent nation in space.
Beijing has plans to land taikonauts on the dark side of the moon by 2036, is investigating the possibility of building a permanent radar station on the moon, and has stated a wish to send a manned mission to Mars in the following decades. NASA hasn’t sent people beyond low-Earth orbit since 1972, but following a recent push from Trump, the agency is not ruling out a manned mission to orbit the moon as soon as 2018. Like China, Russia is also investigating the possibility of building a colony on the moon, with plans announced last year for sending a dozen cosmonauts by 2030.
On the scientific front, China recently launched the world’s first quantum satellite, designed in part to establish unhackable communication. Last year, after 22 years of planning, the Chinese powered up the world’s largest radio telescope. The country is also developing its own version of GPS, called BeiDou, currently being used to track and guide about 40,000 fishing vessels in the highly contentious South China Sea.
But China’s military space program may be its most robust. In 2007, it tested an anti-satellite system that allowed it to successfully shoot down a Chinese satellite. The U.S. took notice; in January, Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned about this capability. “In the not-too-distant future,” he said, “they will be able to use that capability to threaten every spacecraft we have in space.”
Months after China’s test, the U.S. successfully demonstrated in February 2008 that its missile defense system could also be used to shoot down satellites. Russia, too, is developing anti-satellite weapons, having conducted its fifth test of the PL-19 Nudol missile last December.
While Hyten and other military experts believe these developments could lead to a so-called “space Pearl Harbor”–style sneak attack on U.S. military satellites, not everyone agrees.
“Chinese military strategists do not see the U.S. military use of satellites as a weakness they can exploit,” Gregory Kulacki, an expert on China-U.S. relations for the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in September. “To the contrary, they see it as a strength they should emulate.”
Hyten cited the Air Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, a constellation of four satellites able to detect and track any threat launched from the ground.
China’s most ambitious near-term project is the launch of its own space station by 2022, which coincides with the beginning of the end of the International Space Station. This week, the country’s space agency confirmed the main core element of the space station is set to launch next year.
“We’re theoretically coming to a point where China might have the only human habitation zone in space,” Weeden said. “If that comes to pass, that will be a pretty significant political shift.”
The launch of the Chinese Space Station around the same time as the planned de-orbiting of the ISS would “enable China to leverage diplomatic opportunities,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Countries interested in continued research in space could be compelled to look to the Chinese space program in the absence of other alternatives.”
Though China’s space science program has enjoyed increased funding at a time when federal support for NASA has dwindled, its budget remains dwarfed by the latter’s. And China continues to be hampered by a U.S. law passed in 2013 that prevents Chinese scientists and engineers from accessing technology developed by NASA — meaning they still have a lot of catching up to do.
Though China is aggressively pushing forward on space exploration and military fronts, the same can’t be said for its commercial and private space industries. There, India appears best positioned to disrupt the market.
Earlier this month, India made history when the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched a single rocket that carried 104 satellites into low-earth orbit.
Low-earth orbit is the section of space between 160 and 2,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. There are multiple benefits of launching satellites into this section of space: For imaging satellites, it means higher-resolution images; for communication satellites it means less interference; and for the people aboard the ISS, the relatively low levels of radiation (compared to deep space) mean they can stay in space for longer periods of time.
Of the 104 satellites launched on Feb. 15 at Sriharikota High Altitude Range center in the state of Andhra Pradesh on the southeastern coast of India, 88 were owned by the San Francisco–based startup Planet Labs, which aims to build a constellation of satellites that will allow it to image the entire earth on a daily basis.
Planet Labs’ decision to launch in India, despite a U.S. government policy that prevents American companies from engaging with ISRO, may hint at a space boom for the subcontinent. The startup was able to circumvent the ban by applying for a waiver, but a more permanent solution may be in the cards — last year the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology asked for clarification on the policy of accessing Indian launch services.
If the ban is lifted, India could soon see a flood of U.S. companies using its services — at the expense of U.S.-based commercial services like SpaceX and Blue Origin. This may explain why the Indian government’s space program is currently focusing primarily on commercial launches of smaller satellites.
Though commercial satellite launches may not have the same cachet as manned missions to Mars or deep space exploration, India’s ability to attract customers from around the globe by offering low-cost and reliable launches could pay off in a big way. There are currently just under 1,500 operational satellites orbiting Earth, but that figure is set to explode in the next decade, with as many as 13,000 satellites slated for launch, according to Weeden.
He says it’s unclear how many of these launches will take place in India — or take place on time — as “the space-launch world is notoriously bad at publicizing firm launch schedules more than six months into the future, and they change/slip all the time.” But regardless, space is going to be a lot different.
“Even if only half of those actually become a reality,” he said, “that is going to be a pretty big change.”