What China’s space ambitions mean for India

India’s space sciences budget maybe a constraint, but Isro is taking rapid strides with its space programmes such as the Mars mission and satellite launches


A file photo of Chinese astronauts. Photo: Xu Haihan/VCG via Getty Images
A file photo of Chinese astronauts. Photo: Xu Haihan/VCG via Getty Images

Mumbai: China’s extraterrestrial ambitions are clearly lifting off, even threatening the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), according to a recent Bloomberg article.

For instance, two Chinese astronauts—or taikonauts—are currently aboard an experimental space station called Tiangong-2. Also known as the Heavenly Palace, this is the second laboratory to be launched by the world’s second-largest economy, and the experiments are aimed at creating a permanent space station by 2022. Since 2011, 11 taikonauts have travelled into space.

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Where does India figure in the space scheme of things?

While Rakesh Sharma, a former Indian Air Force pilot, flew aboard a Soviet spacecraft launched on 2 April 1984 to become the first Indian to fly into space, India is yet to send a manned mission to the moon.

India’s first manned space mission is now being slotted for 2021—a crucial step to launch vyomanauts, or Indian astronauts, on the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organization (Isro), on its part, has also sent satellites to the moon and Mars but never soft-landed, a feat that Bengaluru-based Axiom Research Labs Pvt. Ltd’s Team Indus has set its eyes on before the end of next year.

Budget is clearly a constraint.

India’s space sciences budget, which is meant to fund research into our planet, the solar system and universe, is a mere $43 million, according to the Isro’s 2015-16 annual report. Compare that with China’s $110 million, Japan’s $953 million and Nasa’s $5.24 billion space sciences budgets.

Further, the US had the biggest budget for space exploration, spending over six times more than China, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures for 2013.

However, according to a 28 August report in The Guardian (), despite its large budget, the US made only 19 successful space launches in 2013, compared with China’s 14 and Russia’s 31.

India’s total space budget estimate for 2016-17, according to the Isro annual report, is pegged at around $1.1 billion. This includes allocation for space technology, space sciences, space applications, Insat operational and administration costs. Compare this with the total space budget of Nasa for FY2016 at $18.8 billion.

India’s space sciences budget is a mere $43 million compared to China’s $110 million, Japan’s $953 million and Nasa’s $5.24 billion

Insat, or the Indian National Satellite System, is a series of multi-purpose geostationary satellites launched by Isro to cater to the telecommunications, broadcasting, meteorology and search-and-rescue needs of the country.

Despite budget constraints, Isro has many achievements to its credit.

Set up in 1969, Isro built India’s first satellite, Aryabhata, which was launched by the Soviet Union on 19 April 1975. In 1980, Rohini became the first satellite to be placed in orbit by an Indian-made launch vehicle, SLV-3. Isro subsequently built the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) for launching satellites into polar orbits and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) to place satellites into geostationary orbits. In January 2014, Isro successfully used an indigenous cryogenic engine in a GSLV-D5 launch of the GSAT-14.

Isro sent a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, on 22 October 2008, and then the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which successfully entered the Mars orbit on 24 September 2014, making India the first nation to succeed in doing so on its first attempt.

Isro became the fourth space agency as well as the first space agency from Asia to successfully send a spacecraft into the Mars orbit.

And it was really cheap: Isro reportedly spent only Rs450 crore on MOM.

By June, Isro had launched 131 satellites using indigenously developed launch vehicles, 74 of them foreign satellites. India has also successfully set a record with the launch of 20 satellites in a single payload, one being a satellite from Google Inc.

Isro became the fourth space agency as well as the first space agency from Asia to successfully send a spacecraft into the Mars orbit

During a press briefing in Nagpur on 20 November, Isro chairman A.S. Kiran Kumar said the space agency plans to launch 10-12 satellites every year in “synergetic partnership” with the industry. He added that India is now rated as one of the top six countries having end-to-end capability in space technology.

Simultaneously, Isro and its commercial arm, Antrix Corp., is working on developing low-cost reliable space launch vehicles, similar to what the US, Ukraine, Russia, China and New Zealand are doing.

Moreover, to expand inter-planetary research, Isro is seeking scientific proposals for a MOM-2.

Clearly, unlike in the past, space is no longer limited to the world’s superpowers, acknowledges the World Economic Forum (WEF). Today, about 60 countries have one or more of their own satellites, up from only 26 countries in 2001.

WEF concludes that a country’s first investments in space are often part of a larger plan to improve information and communications technology, infrastructure, agriculture and education—all essential ingredients for a resilient economy that can drive sustainable development.

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