Space policies in 2011: an overview
9 janvier 2012
The end of the space shuttle created a deep vacuum in the US spaceflight capabilities. The temporarily hired Soyuz seats and the perspectives provided so far by the private sector do not offer a sustainable and acceptable solution for Washington. Space X, the frontrunner of the commercial space companies, has been asked to send its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2012. However, the prospect of a reliable and long-term access to space continues to suffer from a lack of consensus between the Congress, the White House and NASA on the modalities of the next American launch system.
While NASA avoided most of the federal budget cuts, some landmark programs had to be cancelled. Last March the White House ordered NASA to cancel two earth observation programs (CLARREO and DESDyd)(2), and a few months later, NASA informed the European space agency (ESA) it would not be able to launch the 2016 European Mars orbiter as planned, sparking much frustration over the old continent. Since then, the Russians have agreed to fill the gap left by the American cancellation.
Although long over budget, the development of the James Webb telescope (JWST) was saved. Programed since 1996, this next generation space telescope is to be lofted 1.5 million km away from earth (at Point Lagrange L2, behind the moon) in 2016 and is expected to provide exceptional imageries on deep space. Despite $6.5bn overruns, and the House of Representative’s attempt to slash the project in fear that it could hurt other planetary missions, the Senate passed an appropriation bill funding the JWST development until 2018(3).
Meanwhile, three major exploration missions have been launched and should reap major scientific benefits in the coming years: a mission to study the moon interior (GRAIL), one mission to analyze Jupiter (Juno), and Curiosity, a giant rover set to touch the Martian soil in August 2012.
The Russian space policy in 2011: the celebrations can not hide the internal crisis
For Russians, 2011 was one to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ever manned flight by Gagarin (April 12, 1961) and was proclaimed the Year of Cosmonautics(4). With the retirement of the US shuttle, Russia became the only nation capable of transporting humans to the ISS. While the legendary Soyuz rocket celebrated its 1750th flight, Russia completed an active year launch record, with 32 launches in total (see graphic below). This year Russia allocated some $2.45 billion for its space programs, 13 percent more than in 2010. This active space policy enabled the full reactivation of the Glonass satellite navigation system, with 31 satellites currently in orbit. In December, Moscow announced that India and Latin America are prioritized markets for the commercialization of the service(5).
But despite these achievements, the Russian space launch system suffered major setbacks, including the loss of two military satellites and one telecommunications satellite. Its image as an international reliable partner was all the more tarnished with the loss of the Progress ISS supply ship, which crashed into Siberia shortly after launch in August. This accident caused a complete rejig of the launch schedule and raised serious concern regarding the ability of the Russians to handle the ISS transport services. One failure led to another when in November the Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars got stranded in earth orbit and was subsequently abandoned.
Vladimir Popovkin, the new Roscosmos director appointed in early 2011, acknowledged that “the industry is in crisis and its weakest link is engine building”(6). Some point out that Russia has lost its qualified workforce in the space industry as older professionals retire with few younger workers and engineers available to replace them. To answer the crisis, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin just empowered Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin “to be in charge of Russia's space sector”(7).
European space policy: The integration of a complete launcher family raises expectations
Last year, the major European space event may have been the successful launch of a Soyuz rocket from the Kourou Spaceport on October 21st. The European Soyuz maiden flight placed the two first Galileo In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites (two more IOV satellites will be launched in early 2012). A second Soyuz flight on December 17th already demonstrated the flexibility of the Russian rocket by orbiting the French space agency's Pleiades 1 Earth imaging satellite, four ELISA electronic intelligence satellites, and a remote sensing satellite for the Chilean military.
Meanwhile, the first Vega launch is planned for the end of January 2012. The development of this small scale launcher (1500 kg payload capacity) started in 1998 and suffered from political disagreements (between France and Italy in particular) and technical delays. But once operational, it will be able to place scientific and earth-observation satellites in polar and low-earth orbits. Vega contracts have already been signed with ESA to send two Sentinel satellites that will be integrated in the paneuropean Global Monitoring of Environment and Security (GMES) program. With Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega operating side-by-side from the Kourou, Arianespace will have a complete launcher family that supports the company's goal of being able to launch 'any payload, to any orbit, anytime”, manned flight remaining the last challenge upfront.
Back in 2011, Ariane 5 lofted eight large geostationary telecommunication satellites – representing one-half of all such payloads orbited worldwide that year. In between, new launch contracts have been signed for 10 geostationary satellites and an exploration mission (BepiColombo, a double probe to be sent in 2014 to Mercury(8)).
Space China in 2011: one “space kiss” and a lot of promises
The demise of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission in November has dashed China’s hopes for its first Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1, which was piggybacking on the larger spacecraft. But it is a relatively small setback for a nation that has notched up a string of successes this year, including the much covered first “heavenly kiss” of two unmanned orbiters, Shenzhou-VIII and Tiangong-I. China is the third country to master the docking technology, which represent a milestone in the country’s effort to build a manned space station by the end of the decade(9). Chinese astronauts are expected to fly on another docking test flight in 2012.
A total of 18 Chinese launches have been spread across 2011 (for one failure), making it the most prolific year in the yet-old Chinese space history. Three navigation satellites have been added to the seven-satellite Beidou constellation, which opened service at the end of December 2011 to China and surrounding areas(10). One data-relay and two military satellites have also been orbited this year, showing the determination of Beijing to become a true global space power. Now it rivals Russia in launching medium-size commercial satellites, and has sent a Thales-built ITAR-free satellite in October.
Worth notifying, Beijing opened the National Space Science Center (NSSC), which will take charge of overall planning for the country’s space science. The Chinese space policy is traditionally devoted to political motives, notably for so-called “prestige” missions such as manned flight. For years, the lack of a clear national strategic plan that prioritized missions has hampered researchers’ efforts to launch space telescopes or planetary probes. Beijing now acknowledges that one cannot assert to be a space power without a constituent scientific program.
More than anything, China's successes in space are helping to bolster the ruling communist party by boosting national pride and unity at a time when a slowing Chinese economy and a rising tide of protests could threaten national stability. Before the October Shenzhou mission, some 12 million people wrote their hopes and dreams for the future and just under 43,000 of them were selected to be stored on a computer chip and carried into space by the spacecraft.
Its “prestigious” space policy also enables China to sign partnerships and contracts with allies. In 2011 China sent two major Pakistanis and Bolivian satellites, and a new contract was signed with Venezuela for an additional satellite service. Hence, analysts often describe it as a Chinese “space diplomacy”, when the mastering of space technology gives the country a leading role in its relations with other emerging countries.
With continuous budget boost, ISRO concentrates its efforts on the GSLV rocket and keeps up with the Asian space race
In 2011, the Indian government has allotted $1.45 billion for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the national space agency. It is a 36 percent increase over the former budget. However, the 2011 launch log only features three Indian launches, all thanks to the PSLV rocket. It seems that the two 2010 failures of the GSLV rocket still overshadow the Indian space program, unable to build its first autonomous cryogenic engine. The GSLV can place 2500 kg payloads in Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit thanks to a cryogenic engine that has been so far provided by Russia. Over the last years, ISRO has tried to develop an indigenous cryogenic capability, in vain. Next year, the Indian space agency will continue to collaborate with the Russians and a GSLV testing is planned before July. In between, the PSLV should continue its clean sheet since 1993 and is expected to launch a French satellite, Spot 6 (11), and a military earth observation satellite, Risat-1, in the coming months.
In March 2011, India successfully tested a ballistic missile defense system, in the latest sign that the Indian space policy is giving increasing focus on military programs(12), in response to the so-called “Asian space race”. This growing militarization of Asian space programs has materialized in 2011 by the sending of two spy satellites by the Japanese space agency, and several more by the People’s Liberation Army. Iran also sent a capsule in orbit, its third successful launch in the last three years, amid worldwide concerns related to the close proximity between rocket and ballistic technologies.
2011, a year of scientific discoveries
An overview of a year of space activities is never meant to be exhaustive, but it would not be satisfying if it did not mention the major space discoveries.
Scientific attention was first and foremost directed to our solar system. 2011 has been the year for sunspots, record solar flares and coronal mass ejections that had never been spotted before. 2011 was also the year when NASA’s Messenger mission entered Mercury orbit and delivered closest ever imagery of the hot planet, while NASA’s Dawn mission returned unique pictures of asteroid Vesta. In November, planetary researchers presented evidence of the existence of liquid oceans under the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which confirmed the specific conditions that exist on Europa and its possible hosting of extraterrestrial life.
Regarding deep space observation, close to 700 “exoplanets” have been discovered since 1995, and 2011 has been one of the most prolific years since then. In February it was announced that astronomers using the Kepler telescope had identified at least 54 planets which appeared to be a similar in size to Earth and at habitable distances from their suns. This was the prelude to the discovery of Kepler-22b, a giant exoplanet orbiting its sun-like star in a location where the energy from its star is 'just right' for liquid water to exist on its surface. A few days later, the first exoplanet the size of the earth, 1000 light-years away from us, was unveiled by Kepler. A planet orbiting two suns and one made of diamonds were also discovered.
In December the journal Nature announced the discovery of two new black holes, the biggest ever witnessed, about 330-million light years away. The smaller has the mass of 9.7-billion suns and the bigger that of 21-billion suns. We still know very little about black holes, other than that they once were massive stars who have eventually collapsed in on themselves.
Last but not least, NASA announced in December that its Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, was on the verge of becoming the first man-made object to leave our Solar System. After flying by Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970’s and 1980’s, it has been sent towards deep space and is now 20 billion kilometers away from earth, traveling at a speed of 17 kilometers per second and reaching the end of our Solar System. The probe should have enough fuel and power to keep sending signals until 2020, and will then be a silent messenger of Humanity. Voyager-1 carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that it is ever found by intelligent life-forms in other planetary systems. The disc includes photos of the earths, greetings in 54 languages, and a medley with sounds of whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore and a collection of earth music, including works by Mozart and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.