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Race to Space: Asian giants India & China jostle for power and supremacy in space

It was a shoestring budget that catapulted India to astronomical fame, (we mean it literally). ISRO’s landmark September 2014 Mangalyaan, or the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) put India as a force to reckon with in space technology with an extraordinary spent of just 10% of NASA’s Mars mission. According to reports, NASA spent $671 million the very same year for its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) probe mission. India’s MOM budget was less than the cost of Hollywood film, Gravity.

However, besides being low cost, (it costed $74 million to put MOM in Mars orbit) ISRO also clinched the first slot by completing all the Mars mission objectives in its maiden attempt, a feat unachieved by any other space agency.  Clearly, MOM’s success has triggered off the Indo vs China space war.


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ISRO, pegged as the “space underdogs” wowed the space biggies – USA and Russia but it was China that felt the snub. China’s first attempt to send a spacecraft to Mars was in 2011. The Yinghuo-1 spacecraft was supposed to go into orbit around Mars but due to technical snags, the spacecraft never left earth’s orbit. Reportedly, India’s success led China National Space Administration to emphasize on the rover concept. China’s next Mars mission is set for 2020 tentative deadline.

However China has a lead over India with its lunar program with its manned moon mission with home-grown technology. China’s lunar exploration programs are on track with a manned mission set for 2032. At the moment, Chinese space agency is conducting tests for landing gear.

Historically, China has a considerable head start over India in space technology. China posits itself as the next space power and since 2011, the country has made significant strides in space tech, from a) space transportation (their Long March carrier rocket series completed 86 launch missions, sending over 100 spacecraft into target orbit with a success rate of 97.67% over a period of 5 years) to launching; b) six manmade satellites; c) deep exploration with Lunar Exploration program that helps to assess lunar surface, environment, elemental composition and surface morphology; d) experimenting on space technologies and space science.

21st century Asian dominance — Indo-China Space powwow

India has different priorities. While China loves to flex its economic muscle, ISRO has emerged as the leader in making technology economically viable.  India’s technology prowess has made it the official satellite launcher – since 1999 India has successfully launched 63 satellites from over 20 countries, including Japan, Netherlands, Denmark, Israel, France, Germany, UK, Indonesia and Argentina among others. In 2016 itself, 6 satellites were launched for four countries — US, Canada, Germany and Indonesia.

Anxtrix corporation, the commercial arm of ISRO is the main provider of launch services to global customers via ISRO’s launch vehicles — Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The PLSVs are said to be the most reliable launch vehicles and as per news reports, Antrix has reportedly generated around $101 million in commercial launch fees between a period of two years, from 2013 to 2015. The satellite launch business is booming for India and ISRO is all set for another benchmark – launching 100 foreign and three Indian satellites in one go through the trusted PLSV this month. Earlier in 2008, ISRO had scored brownie points by launching 10 satellites simultaneously.

Race to Space: Indo vs China space war

Though China has emerged as the talk du jour, thanks in part to its manned mission to Moon, setting up Chinese modular space station by 2022, a planned space station in low earth orbit, India has an altogether different ballgame when it comes to space.

  • China sees space exploration as a matter of national prestige. Case in point – the Chinese government marked the date April 24 as China’s Space Day in 2016.
  • China’s concerted efforts on manned mission will establish its supremacy in space.  Case in point – China’s first manned mission was in 2003
  • Capitalize on economic wealth and opportunities through communication and broadcasting satellites helps avert national disasters. Case in point —  China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System can provide communications to countries in Asia Pacific region  
  • According to a whitepaper, China has established itself in space technologies such as space docking and manned space transportation. It has started competing with India in commercial satellite launches as well
  • China’s space exploration program is  more ambitious, aggressive and focused and they are backed by manpower and funds.

Meanwhile, news reports point out ISRO Chairman AS Kiran Kumar sharing India’s stance on manned missions, revealing it is not a priority. India’s strength is in re-entry technology and low-cost commercial launches that has heightened its appeal in the global market. ISRO is more focused on higher-performance satellites and probes.

Secondly, ISRO’s annual budget of INR 11,754 crore is pegged to be lower than the losses accrued by e-commerce giants in India. ISRO’s services are used for averting national disasters such as in the case of Cyclone Vardah last year. Reportedly, ISRO satellites provided data to India Meteorological Department about the cyclone’s trajectory.

India’s space program has received considerable boost under PM Narendra Modi’s tenure. India attaches high relevance to space matters and PM Modi’s ambitious SAARC satellite will be launched in March, this year.

Up next, ISRO has trained its sights on Venus and Jupiter with Jupiter’s payload expected to be heavier. While Venus mission will take more than 3 months, Jupiter is set to be a 26 month mission.

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Richa Bhatia
Richa Bhatia is a seasoned journalist with six-years experience in reportage and news coverage and has had stints at Times of India and The Indian Express. She is an avid reader, mum to a feisty two-year-old and loves writing about the next-gen technology that is shaping our world.

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