Comparison of Asian national space programs

Several Asian countries have space programs and are actively competing to achieve scientific and technological advancements in space, a situation sometimes referred to as the Asian space race in the popular media[1] as a reference to the earlier Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Like the previous space race, issues involved in the current push to space include national security, which has spurred many countries to send artificial satellites as well as humans into Earth orbit and beyond.[2] A number of Asian countries are seen as contenders in the ongoing race to be the pre-eminent power in space.[3]

Asian space powers

Of the ten countries that have independently successfully launched a satellite into orbit, six are Asian: China, India, Iran, Israel, Japan and North Korea.

China's first manned spacecraft entered orbit in October 2003, making China the first Asian nation to send a human into space.[4]

India is expected to demonstrate independent human spaceflight by 2020 and human landing on the moon by 2030.,[5] and Iran and Japan have plans for independent manned spaceflights around 2020. China is also still predicting manned mission to the Earth moon by 2025 and to Mars by 2050.

While the achievements of space programs run by the main Asian space players (China, India, and Japan) pale in comparison to the milestones set by the former Soviet Union and the United States, some experts believe Asia may soon lead the world in space exploration.[6] China has been the leader of Asia's space race since the beginning of the 21st century.[7] The first Chinese manned spaceflight, in 2003, marked the beginning of a space race in the region. At the same time, the existence of a space race in Asia is still debated due to the non-concurrence of space milestone events like there was for the United States and the Soviet Union. Japan for example was the first power on Earth to get a sample return mission from an asteroid. There was however some concurrence between China and India to see which of those two could be the first to launch a probe to the Earth's moon back in the late 2000s decade. China, for example, denies that there is an Asian space race.[8] In January 2007 China became the first Asian military-space power to send an anti-satellite missile into orbit, to destroy an aging Chinese Feng Yun 1C weather satellite in polar orbit. The resulting explosion sent a wave of debris hurtling through space at more than 6 miles per second.[9][10] A month later, Japan's space agency launched an experimental communications satellite designed to enable super high-speed data transmission in remote areas.[9]

After successful achievement of geostationary technology, India's ISRO launched its first Moon mission, Chandrayaan-1 in October 2008, which discovered ice water on the Moon.[11] India then launched on 5 November 2013 its maiden interplanetary mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission. The primary objective is to determine Mars' atmospheric composition and attempt to detect methane. The spacecraft completed its journey on 24 September 2014 when it entered its intended orbit around Mars, making India the first Asian country to successfully place a Mars orbiter and the only country in history to do so in the first attempt. India became the fourth space agency in the world to send a spacecraft to Mars, only behind United States, Russia, and the European Union.

In addition to increasing national pride, countries are commercially motivated to operate in space. Commercial satellites are launched for communications, weather forecasting, and atmospheric research. According to a report by the Space Frontier Foundation released in 2006, the "space economy" is estimated to be worth about $180 billion, with more than 60% of space-related economic activity coming from commercial goods and services.[2] China and India propose the initiation of a commercial launch service.


Main article: Chinese space program

China has a space program with an independent human spaceflight capability. It has developed a sizable family of successful Long March rockets. It has launched two lunar orbiters, Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2. On 2 December 2013, China launched a modified Long March 3B rocket, with Chang'e 3 Moon lander and its rover Yutu on-board toward the Moon and successfully performed soft landing and rover operations, becoming the third country to do so.[12] It also has plans to retrieve samples by late 2017. In 2011, China embarked on a program to establish a manned space station, starting with the launch of Tiangong 1 and followed by Tiangong 2 in 2016. China attempted to send a Mars orbiter (Yinghuo-1) in 2011 on a joint mission with Russia, which failed to leave Earth orbit. Nevertheless, Yinghuo-2 with an orbiter, a lander and a rover has been proven by the government and is aiming a launch date in the year 2020.[13] China has collaborative projects with Russia, ESA, and Brazil, and has launched commercial satellites for other countries. Some analysts suggest that the Chinese space program is linked to the nation's efforts at developing advanced military technology.[14]

China's advanced technology is the result of the integration of various related technological experiences. Early Chinese satellites, such as the FSW series, have undergone many atmospheric reentry tests. In the 1990s China had commercial launches, resulting in more launch experiences and a high success rate after the 1990s. China has aimed to undertake scientific development in fields like Solar System exploration. China's Shenzhou 7 spacecraft successfully performed an EVA in September 2008. China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft successfully performed a manned docking in June 2012. Furthermore, China's Chang'e 2 explorer became the first object to reach Sun-Earth Lagrangian point in August 2011 and also the first probe to explore both Moon and asteroid by making a flyby of the asteroid 4179 Toutatis. China has launched DAMPE, the most capable dark matter explorer to date in 2015, and world's first quantum communication satellite QUESS in 2016.


India's interest in space travel began in the early 1960s, when scientists launched a small rocket above Kerala.[15] Under Vikram Sarabhai, the program focused on the practical uses of space in increasing the standard of living. Remote sensing and communications satellites were placed into orbit.[16]

Just a few days after China said that it would send a human into orbit in the second half of 2003, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly urged his country's scientists to work towards sending a man to the Moon.[17] It successfully sent its probe to the Moon in October 2008[18] and is planning its second Moon mission, Chandrayaan-2 for 2017.[19]

ISRO launched its Mars Orbiter Mission on November 5, 2013(informally called "Mangalyaan") which successfully entered into the orbit around Mars on 24 September 2014. India is the first in Asia and fourth in the world to perform a successful Mars mission. It is also the only one to do so on the first attempt and at a record low cost of $74 million.[20]

ISRO has demonstrated its re-entry technology and till date has launched as many as 74 foreign satellites belonging to global customers from 20 countries including US, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, U.K. All of these have been launched successfully by PSLVs so far, gaining significant expertise in space technologies. In June 2016, India set a record by launching 20 satellites simultaneously.[21] The PSLVs are also one of world's most reliable launch vehicles which clocked its 32nd successful mission (34 total) in a row as of June,2016.

Recent reports indicate that human spaceflight will occur after 2017, on a GSLV-Mk III, as the mission is not included in the government's 12th five-year plan (2012–2017).[22]


Main article: JAXA
The H-IIA F11 launch vehicle lifts off from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan

Japan has been cooperating with the United States on missile defence since 1999. North Korean nuclear and Chinese military programs represent a serious issue for Japan's foreign relations.[23] Japan is working on military and civilian space technologies, developing missile defence systems, new generations of military spy satellites, and planning for manned stations on the Moon.[24] Japan started to construct spy satellites after North Korea test fired a Taepodong missile over Japan in 1998. The North Korean government claimed the missile was merely launching a satellite to space, and accused Japan of causing an arms race.[25] The Japanese constitution adopted after World War II limits military activities to defensive operations. On May 2007 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a bold review of the Japanese Constitution to allow the country to take a larger role in global security and foster a revival of national pride.[26] Japan has not yet developed its own manned spacecraft and does not have a program in place to develop one. The Japanese space shuttle HOPE-X, to be launched by the conventional space launcher H-II, was developed but the program was postponed and eventually cancelled. Then the simpler manned capsule Fuji was proposed but not adopted. Pioneer projects of single-stage to orbit, reusable launch vehicle horizontal takeoff and landing ASSTS and vertical takeoff and landing Kankoh-maru were developed but have not been adopted. A more conservative new (JAXA manned spacecraft) project is proposed to launch by 2025 as part of the Japanese plan to send manned missions to the Moon. Shin'ya Matsuura is doubtful about the Japanese manned Moon project, and suspects the project is a euphemism for participation in the American Constellation program.[27] JAXA planned to send a humanoid robot (such as ASIMO) to the Moon.[27]

Other minor players


Main article: Iranian Space Agency
Iranian Simorgh (rocket) SLV

Iran has developed its own satellite launch vehicle, named the Safir SLV, based on the Shahab series of IRBMs. On 2 February 2009, Iranian state television reported that Iran's first domestically made satellite Omid (from the Persian امید, meaning "Hope") had been successfully launched into low Earth orbit by a version of Iran's Safir rocket, the Safir-2.[28] The launch coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Iran is also developing a new launch vehicle Simorgh (rocket).


Main article: Israel Space Agency

Israel became the tenth country in the world to build its own satellite and launch it with its own launcher on 19 September 1988. Israel launched its first satellite, Ofeq-1, using an Israeli-built Shavit three-stage launch vehicle.[29] The launching was the high point of a process that began in 1983 with the establishment of the Israel Space Agency under the aegis of the Ministry of Science. Space research by university-based scientists began in the 1960s, providing a ready-made pool of experts for Israel's foray into space. Since then, local universities, research institutes, and private industry, backed by the Israel Space Agency, have made progress in space technology. The agency's role is to support "private and academic space projects, coordinate their efforts, initiate and develop international relations and projects, head integrative projects involving different bodies, and create public awareness for the importance of space development."[30]

North Korea

North Korea has many years of experience with rocket technology, which it has passed along to Pakistan and other countries. On December 12, 2012, North Korea placed its first satellite in orbit with the launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2. On 12 March 2009 North Korea signed the Outer Space Treaty and the Registration Convention,[31] after a previous declaration of preparations for the launch of Kwangmyongsong-2. North Korea twice announced satellite launches: Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 on 31 August 1998 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 on 5 April 2009. Neither of these claims were confirmed by the rest of the world, but the United States and South Korea believe there were tests of military ballistic missiles. The North Korean space agency is the Korean Committee of Space Technology, which operates the Musudan-ri and Tongch'ang-dong Space Launch Center rocket launching sites and has developed the Baekdusan-1 and Unha (Baekdusan-2) space launchers and Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellites. In 2009 North Korea announced several future space projects, including manned space flights and the development of a manned partially reusable launch vehicle.[32]

South Korea

South Korea is a newer player in the Asian space race.[33] In August 2006 South Korea launched its first military communications satellite, the Mugunghwa-5. The satellite was placed in geosynchronous orbit and collects surveillance information about North Korea.[34] The South Korean government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in space technology and was due to launch its first space launcher, the Korea Space Launch Vehicle, in 2008.[35] South Korea's government justifies the cost for reasons of long-term commercial benefits and national pride. South Korea has long seen North Korea's significantly longer missile range as a serious threat to its national security. With the nation's first astronaut launched into space, Lee So-yeon, South Korea gained confidence in entering the Asian space race. They are completing the construction of Naro Space Center. Once it is operational, South Korea will be able to build satellites and missiles with local technology.[36] South Korea is pursuing a space program that could defend the peninsula while lessening their dependency on the United States.


Pakistan started pursuing space technology on 16 September 1961, when Pakistan's space agency, SUPARCO was created, with renowned physicist Abdus Salam as its first administrator. In its early days, SUPARCO researched on the development of solid-fuel sounding rockets with assistance provided by the United States. On 7 June 1962, with the launch of the Rehbar-I (lit. Teller of the Way) rocket, Pakistan became the third country in Asia and the tenth in the world to successfully conduct the launch of an unmanned spacecraft. This rocket had been developed by a team of scientists and engineers of the Pakistan Air Force, led by Air Commodore (Brigadier-General) Władysław Józef Marian Turowicz in collaboration with NASA and was launched from Sonmiani, Pakistan's first space launch facility. SUPARCO's unmanned space program continued till 1972, with nearly 200 successful launches. SUPARCO's unmanned space program suffered setbacks during the 1970s and the 1980s, delaying the development and launch of Pakistan's first satellite, Badr-I till 1990 when it was launched from China. SUPARCO launched Pakistan's second satellite, Badr-B in 2001 from Baikonur Cosmodrome using a Ukrainian Zenit-2 rocket, followed by Paksat-1R in 2011 which was contracted and actually built and launched by China, was Pakistan's first communication satellite. Currently, SUPARCO is involved in the development of the Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite which is scheduled for launch in 2018, presumably from China.


Bangladesh is one of the first Asian countries to operate their own communication satellite purchased abroad, and is set to join Asian space powers with launch of highly capable Bangabandhu-1 satellite. Bangladesh Space Agency intends to launch more satellites soon after 2020. Bangladesh's government has stressed that the country seeks an "entirely peaceful and commercial" role in space.[37]

Other nations and regions

Indonesia was one of the first Asian countries to operate their own communication satellites purchased abroad, and intends to join the Asian space powers by developing and using their own small space launch vehicle Pengorbitan (RPS-420) in 2012–2014.

Other space players are Malaysia and Turkey, that announced multi-task space programs in 2006 and 2007. They intend to develop their own satellites and launchers in the near future, and manned space facilities. As of 2012 Turkey was developing its own military satellite. The first Göktürk satellite is planned to be launched in 2013. The Turkish satellite is planned to be capable of taking satellite images of greater than two meters per pixel resolution, thus making Turkey the second nation in the world capable of such a feat, after the United States.[38]

Timeline of national firsts

Also see the section: Comparison of key technologies

     – Indigenous manned missions          – Manned missions      – Lunar or Interplanetary missions      – Other missions
Date Nation Name Asian First World achievements
4 October 1957  USSR
(now under  Kazakhstan)
Baikonur Cosmodrome Satellite launch pad The first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched.
11 February 1970  Japan Osumi Satellite The smallest satellite launch vehicle (L-4S; 9.4t weight, 1.4m diameter)
24 February 1975  Japan Taiyo Solar probe
26 October 1975  China FSW-0 Satellite recovery[39]
26 October 1975  China FSW-0:
– 10m (1975)
– 4m (1992)[40]
– 0.5m (till 2007)[41]
High resolution imaging satellite
8 July 1976  Indonesia Palapa A1 Geosynchronous satellite (launched by NASA)
23 February 1977  Japan N-I Geosynchronous launch
21 February 1979  Japan Hakucho Space observatory
23 July 1980  Vietnam Phạm Tuân Asian in space (Soyuz 37)
20 September 1981  China FB-1 Simultaneous satellite launch[42]
8 January 1985  Japan Sakigake Leaving Earth orbit The first interplanetary launch by solid rocket (M-3SII)
19 March 1990  Japan Hagoromo Reach lunar orbit (assumed)
7 April 1990  China CZ-3 Commercial launch (AsiaSat 1)
10 April 1993  Japan Hiten Intentional lunar impact The first aerobraking test[43]
8 July 1994  Japan Chiaki Mukai Asian woman in space (STS-65)
19 November 1997  Japan Takao Doi Spacework (STS-87)
28 November 1997  Japan ETS-VII Rendezvous docking
3 July 1998  Japan Nozomi Martian mission (Failure)
30 October 2000  China Beidou Satellite navigation system
10 September 2002  Japan Kodama[44] Data relay satellite (with ESA)
15 October 2003  China Yang Liwei First man in space launched by an Asian space program
15 October 2003  China Shenzhou 5 Manned spacecraft
19 November 2005  Japan Hayabusa Soft-landed probe on extraterrestrial object The first asteroid ascent
11 January 2007  China FY-1C ASAT test Highest in history with altitude 865 km, also the fastest with speed 18k miles
23 February 2008  Japan WINDS Internet satellite The fastest internet satellite[45]
11 March 2008  Japan Japanese Experiment Module Manned foundations in space (STS-123, STS-124, STS-127) The world’s largest pressurized volume in space[46]
25 April 2008  China Tianlian I Indigenous Tracking & Data Relay Satellite System
First TDRS system to support manned missions
27 September 2008  China Zhai Zhigang (Shenzhou 7) Indigenous EVA
27 September 2008  China BanXing Manned spacecraft-launched satellite
14 November 2008  India Moon Impact Probe Probe designed for Lunar impact Discovered water on the Moon before impact.[47][48]
23 January 2009  Japan GOSAT Greenhouse gas explorer[49]
20 May 2010  Japan Akatsuki First Asian Venus mission
21 May 2010  Japan IKAROS Solar sail The first spacecraft to successfully demonstrate solar-sail technology in interplanetary space
25 August 2011  China Chang'e 2 Lunar probe with extended deep space missions (asteroid mission to 4179 Toutatis).
29 September 2011  China Tiangong-1 First Asian Space station
18 June 2012  China Shenzhou 9 First manned space docking by an Asian country (with Tiangong-1)
14 December 2013  China Chang'e 3/Yutu First lunar soft landing and lunar rover by an Asian country.
24 September 2014  India Mars Orbiter Mission First successful Mars mission by an Asian country First Martian mission by a country to succeed on the first attempt. Third country to do so after the USSR and the USA.

Other achievements

Timeline of the heaviest satellite launch vehicle in Asia
First success LEO GTO / GEO Notes
11 Feb 1970 Japan L-4S (26 kg) First launch was 1966 (failed 4 times).
24 Apr 1970 China CZ-1 (0.3 t) First launch failed in 1969.
26 Jul 1975 China FB-1 (2.5 t) Suborbital flight was performed in 1972.
ChinaCZ-2A (LEO 2t) failed in 1974.
16 Jul 1990 China CZ-2E (LEO 9.2 t / GTO 3.5 t)
20 Aug 1997 China CZ-3B (LEO 12 t / GTO 5.2 t)
18 Dec 2006 Japan H-IIA204 (LEO 15 t / GTO 5.8 t)
10 Sep 2009 Japan H-IIB (LEO 19 t / GTO 8 t)
3 Nov 2016 Japan H-IIB (LEO 19 t) China CZ-5 (GTO 14 t)[50]

Comparison of key technologies

Records of each country are listed by chronological order unless otherwise noted.

First independent launches (rocket/satellite)
Payloads in orbit by number (active/total, first five as of 2015)[51]
First indigenous low Earth orbit manned spaceflights
Independent human spaceflights (total persons/person flights)
First independent extravehicular activity
First independent unmanned/manned Space rendezvous
Multi-satellite simultaneous launches (by number)
First fight of space shuttles
Including shuttle-shaped hypersonic reentry vehicles reach to space.
First space habitation module
First space laboratory
First orbiters to the Moon
First intentional Moon landings
First Lunar soft landings/Lunar rovers
Orbiters to Mars
Orbiter to Venus
Asteroid explorations
Capability of Launch Vehicle (in active, payload to LEO)
Capability of Launch Vehicle (in active, payload to GTO)
Cryogenic rocket engine
Solid-fuel rocket
Optical satellite imagery (by highest available resolution)
Radar satellite imagery (by resolution)
Communications satellite technology
Resupply spacecraft (launch payload)
Solar Sail spacecraft
Spacecraft powered by indigenous plasma thrusters (power, thrust, specific impulse)
Spacecraft powered by indigenous ion thrusters (power, thrust, specific impulse)
Spacecraft powered by indigenous Hall thrusters (power, thrust, specific impulse)
Other comparable technologies
Nation Multi-satellite simultaneous launches Launch of foreign satellite Geostationary launches Atmos-
pheric reentry
Rendezvous dockings in orbit Satellite navigation system Data relay satellites Martian missions Solar Space Missions Space observatories
 China 1981
3 Sats
Pakistan science satellite
Dong Fang Hong 02
(by CZ-3)
Tiangong 1
Tianlian I
Solar Space Telescope
2015/2016 (planned)
Space Hard X-Ray Modulation Telescope
 India 1999
3 Sats
South Korea Kitsat-3
Germany DLR-Tubsat
(by GSLV)
planned 2013
2017/18 (planned)
 Japan 1986
(H-I H15F)[89]
3 Sats
Australia FedSat
(by N-I)
(orbiter) (Failure)

? : Date is assumed
Only projects with under-development or above status have been listed

Orbital Launch Frequency


2001[94] 2002[95] 2003[96] 2004[97] 2005[98] 2006[99] 2007[100] 2008[101] 2009[102] 2010[103] Total
 China 1 5 7 8 5 6 9 11 6 15 73
 Japan 1 3 3 - 2 6 2 1 3 2 23
 India 2 1 2 1 1 1 3 3 2 3 19
 Iran - - - - - - - 1 1 - 2
 Israel - 1 - 1 - - 1 - - 1 4
 North Korea - - - - - - - - 1 - 1
 South Korea - - - - - - - - 1 1 2
Total 4 10 12 10 8 13 15 16 14 22


2011[104] 2012[105] 2013[106] 2014[107] 2015[108] Total
 China 19 19 15 16 19 88
 Japan 3 2 3 4 4 16
 India 3 2 4 5 5 19
 Iran 1 3 1 - 1 6
 Israel - - - 1 - 1
 North Korea - 2 - - - 2
 South Korea - - 1 - - 1
Total 26 28 24 26 29

Solar System exploration

Solar System exploration and manned spaceflights are major space technologies in the public eye. Since Sakigake, the first interplanetary probe in Asia, was launched in 1985, Japan has completed the most planetary exploration, but other nations are catching up.

Moon race

The Moon is thought to be rich in Helium-3, which could one day be used in nuclear fusion power plants to fuel future energy demands in Asia. All three main Asian space powers plan to send men to the Moon in the distant future and have already sent lunar probes.

Probing the Moon

Japan was the first Asian country to launch a lunar probe. The Hiten (Japanese: "flying angel") spacecraft (known before the launch as MUSES-A), built by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of Japan, was launched on 24 January 1990. In many ways, the mission did not go as was planned. Kaguya, the second Japanese lunar orbiter spacecraft, was launched on 14 September 2007.

China launched its first lunar probe, Chang'e-1, on 24 October 2007 and successfully entered lunar orbit on 5 November 2007.

India launched its first lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1, on 22 October 2008 and successfully entered its final lunar orbit on 2 November 2008. The mission was considered a major success and the probe detected water on the lunar surface.

Moon landings

Main article: Moon landing

The first confirmed Moon landing from Asia was Hiten's mission in 1993. An intentional hard landing at the end of the mission, some pictures of the lunar surface were taken before impact.[109] Hiten was not designed as a Moon lander and had few scientific instruments for lunar exploration. The next Japanese Moon landing program was the LUNAR-A, developed from 1992. Although the LUNAR-A orbiter was cancelled, its penetrators are integrated into the Russian Luna-Glob program, which was scheduled to launch in 2011. The penetrators are "relatively" hard landers,[110] but they are not expected to be destroyed at impact.

The first Asian probe that was part of a lunar landing program was the Indian Moon Impact Probe (MIP) released from Chandrayaan-1 in 2008. MIP was a hard lander and was designed to move the ground under for research purposes. MIP was designed to be destroyed at impact. Its instruments performed lunar observations to within 25 minutes before impact. The landing test will be applied to future soft landings such as Chandrayaan-2, planned for 2016.

The Chinese Chang'e-1 spacecraft also achieved a systematic hard landing at the end of its mission in 2009, when China became the sixth country to reach the lunar surface. One purpose of the lander was to pre-test for future soft landings. A Chinese lunar soft lander is achieved with the Chang'e-3 mission.

Exploration of the major planets

Japanese interplanetary probes have been mostly limited to Small Solar System bodies such as comets and asteroids. JAXA's Nozomi probe was launched in 1998, but contact was lost with the probe due to electrical failures before visiting the planet Mars. The second Japanese probe for the planet Venus, Akatsuki, was launched in 2010. Akatsuki entered orbit around Venus on December 7, 2015.

Chinese scientists expect that China will take 20 years to launch independent planetary probes.[111] The Chinese manned Mars exploration program is planned for around 2050 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.[112]

India has successfully launched Mars Orbiter Mission on November 5, 2013. It reached Mars on September 2014. India has become the only country to successfully insert a satellite into Martian orbit in its maiden attempt; it also became the first Asian country to achieve this feat.

Asian space agencies and programs

See also

Notes and references

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