Both Great and Middle Powers Are Getting Into the New Space Race
March 8, 2021 Topic: Space Region: Space Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: SpaceMarsNASASpaceXChina

Both Great and Middle Powers Are Getting Into the New Space Race

Lower costs and better technology means space is no longer just accessible to only America and Russia.

With space becoming increasingly cheaper and easier to access, traditional powers like Russia and the United States are pursuing more ambitious projects and testing emerging technologies. The lower costs are meanwhile allowing middle powers to enter the race, supporting programs both in space and on Earth. In quick succession, three spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates, China and the United States recently arrived at the red planet in a span of just 10 days. The United Arab Emirates became the fifth country to reach Mars when its orbiter arrived Feb. 9 to study weather conditions on Mars. China then became the sixth country to reach the planet when its Tianwen-1 spacecraft arrived on Feb. 10. The fifth U.S. Mars rover, Perseverance, and its Ingenuity helicopter drone are also set to land on Feb. 18. 

  • Later this year, China hopes to become the third country to successfully perform a soft landing on the surface of Mars and deploy a rover.
  • The U.S. Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of microbial habitability on Mars and conduct an oxygen test for future manned missions.  
  • The European Space Agency and Roscomos also originally planned to have their own Mars mission arriving, but delayed their Rosalind Franklin rover mission until the 2022 launch window. 

The maturation of technologies related to probes, orbiters and rovers has democratized access to space and driven down the costs of space programs, causing the recent flurry of missions to Mars and other destinations by global and middle powers alike. A plethora of space launch providers, as well as spacecraft design and assembly companies, have emerged over the past 20 years, cutting the costs of space missions for governments interested in exploring the final frontier. The U.S.-based private space company SpaceX has become the poster child for cheap launches, but its entry has also helped drive down costs for other commercial providers. The United Arab Emirates also views its space program's popularity as a way to make its workforce more innovative and competitive by driving Emiratis to pursue careers in the hard sciences as the importance of oil and gas wanes.

  • The UAE space program mission illustrates the relative ease of entry and increasing globalization of the space industry. The UAE Mars mission used a Japanese rocket instead of its own, setting it apart from true space powers like China and the United States. The orbiter being used in the UAE mission was also assembled in the United States, with significant support and design by American universities and companies. 
  • The cost to launch SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is roughly $2,600/kg. The Atas V rocket designed by Lockheed Martin a decade ago, by contrast, costs roughly $8,100/kg to launch. SpaceX expects its Falcon Heavy rocket to push per kilogram launch costs down further. 

The space race has become far more complex since the days of the Cold War due to the sheer scale of opportunities and emerging technologies, particularly for global superpowers like the United States and China. The space race in the Cold War was highly focused on the exploration of the moon, as well as the development of satellite technology (and its uses back on Earth). While today both the Chinese and U.S. space programs have a heavy focus on the moon, both are looking intensely at the commercialization of space and adoption of in-situ resource utilization, which are both necessary to scale up the development of space and overcome launch constraints. 

  • NASA's Artemis program, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024, aims to start more specific research around in situ resource development to help enable future missions to Mars. 
  • NASA's Perseverance rover plans to carry out the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (known as MOXIE), which aims to look at producing oxygen on Mars that could then be used to supply future manned missions, and potentially as a propellant for returning astronauts. 
  • NASA is also in the final stages of assembling its Psyche spacecraft, set to launch in 2022, that will explore the 16 Psyche asteroid, whose deposits of iron and nickel dwarf known resources of the elements on Earth.
  • Manned missions to Mars will require significant innovations with direct applications on Earth to solve life habitat, sustainability and communication challenges, where both China and the United States want to establish themselves as leaders. 

Easier access to space has also triggered a middle power space race. The Emiratis are involved in this, along with many other countries such as Turkey, South Korea and Iran. Each country's space program also has a heavy focus on dual-use technologies that could support their missile programs and defense industries. Not to be upstaged by the United Arab Emirates, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a 10-year space program on Feb. 9, the same day the United Arab Emirates was celebrating its Mars mission's arrival. The Turkish program set an overly ambitiously target of carrying out a lunar mission in 2023. South Korea meanwhile is in the process of developing its second KSLV-II rocket, planning to have the first launch later this year. Unlike the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Turkey and Iran all hope to have indigenously developed rockets. This ambition represents an effort to foster domestic space industries and for use as launch systems for the defense and missile industries. Further development of their space programs — all certainly credible programs for commercial applications — will draw attention and suspicion regarding the proliferation of ballistic missile technology to those countries. Iran and Turkey will draw more concern from Western countries than South Korea, but Seoul has focused heavily on missile development in recent years. In July 2020 it announced that it had won approval from the United States to use solid fuel for space launch vehicles, a technology that can be transferred to solid-fuel boosters for ballistic missiles. 

The Geopolitics of Missions to Mars is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.

Image: Reuters.