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Space Race: an unexplored path

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    22nd Feb, 2021
Space Race: an unexplored path


  • NASA’s Perseverance rover, UAE’s Hope mission entered Martian orbit, and Tianwen-1, a Chinese mission is in a race to touch the Mars surface in a back-to-back series. Each of the ventures has “different aims and capabilities”.
    • The US and Chinese missions, which come against the backdrop of an intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the two nations, include plans to land exploratory rovers on Mars, while the UAE is focused on surveying it from above via an orbiter.
  • The Mars ventures are also the latest landmark in the new geopolitical space race, as the world’s most powerful nations once again compete with one another for dominance beyond Earth’s surface.
  • The flotilla of missions represents the spread of planetary exploration which seems like a space race.
  • The space industry is experiencing a renaissance of sorts after more than half a century, with new players, including developing countries and private firms; and more ambitions than before, moving beyond international prestige with geopolitical competition, economics and commercial potential shaping the actions of the actors.

The new era of space competition

  • The first “space race” during the Cold War was a competition between the US and USSR to reach the moon and harness space technology for their military advantage.
  • Today, there are more than 80 countries operating satellites in space, and about a dozen countries with space programs with launching capabilities. 
  • The traditional space powers, the US, Russia and Europe remained key players.
  • But as the world becomes increasingly dependent on space-based services- from telecommunications technology and education, to weather forecasting for agriculture, to disaster monitoring and management, and other civilian and military uses, it’s no surprise that others, like China, India, Japan, UAE, Brazil, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, and Luxembourg, to name a few, have joined in. 

What is being referred to as space race?

  • The Space Race is an informal 20th- century competition between the nations to achieve spaceflight capabilities.
  • It saw its origin in competition between two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US) race to reach space first.
  • The Space Race led to pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, unmanned space missions to the Moon, Venus, Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit, etc.

Space industry

  • The space industry was valued at $420 billion in 2020, and is expected to reach $1 trillion or more in the next decade.
  • Space Industry refers to the manufacturing of any element that will leave planet Earth and all the services related to its journey through space.
  • The three major sectors of the Space Industry are: spacecrafts, ground support equipment and the launch industry. 

What factors could drive nations for space race?

Revolution in technologies

  • GPS, accurate weather forecasting, crucial medical research to cure diseases, and experiments to save human life are some of the revolutionary technologies which have not been possible without exploring space.

A tryst for more space

  • There are currently more than 7 billion humans which are expected to be more than 9.6 billion soon.
  • At a time, when countries are fighting for space on earth, it becomes quite significant to explore space from the point of view of colonization.

Space Mining

  • As the options for the extraction of minerals and resources on earth are tapering continuously, the extraction of valuable minerals from outer space is getting crucial.

Climate change

  • The rising level of pollution and increasing devastation by climate change are also encouraging nations to explore a safer place.

Space Tourism

  • Space tourism is human space travel for recreational purposes.
  • There are several different types of space tourism, including orbital, suborbital and lunar space tourism.
  • To date, orbital space tourism has been performed only by the Russian Space Agency. Countries are working towards space tourism vehicles.

Matter of hegemony

  • As the options for dominance over nuclear arms, cyber exploration, defense capabilities, technologies, IT and economy are exhausting continuously. Space provides a new opportunity to show a country’s might.

Some important ongoing space programs


  • BepiColombo: It is a joint mission of Europe and Japan. It was launched in 2018 and arrives at Mercury in 2025.


  • Japan's Akatsuki: It studies the planet's dynamic atmosphere.
  • India's Shukrayaan-1: The launch will take place in 2023 to map the surface with radar and infrared detectors.


  • China's Chang'e-5 returned lunar samples to Earth in 2020 and is on an extended mission to study the Sun and possibly asteroids.
  • India's Chandrayaan-2 orbiter maps the Moon's topography, studies its composition, and scans for water ice.
  • NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter studies the Moon with a high-powered camera.
  • The Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter is a technology demonstration mission planned for 2022.
  • Israeli non-profit SpaceIL launches Beresheet2 to the Moon in 2024 to conduct scientific experiments and public outreach.
  • Mars
  • NASA's Perseverance rover landed in February of 2021 and will search for past life and collect samples for return to Earth.
  • China's Tianwen-1 is an orbiter and rover mission that arrived in
  • The United Arab Emirates' Hope orbiter arrived in February 2021.
  • India's Mangalyaan orbiter is a technology demonstration mission studying the planet.
  • Japan's Martian Moons eXploration mission launches in 2024 to collect samples of Phobos for return to Earth.
  • Pluto and other smaller planets
  • NASA's New Horizons flew past distant Pluto and Arrokoth and is exploring a region of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt.
  • Japan's Hayabusa2 returned a sample of asteroid Ryugu to Earth in 2020 and is on a journey to two more asteroids.
  • NASA's OSIRIS-REx collected a sample of asteroid Bennu for return to Earth in 2023.
  • Saturn

NASA's Dragonfly launches in 2027 to explore Saturn's moon Titan.

What could be gained and lost in the space race?


The benefits from space exploration are rooted in the generation of new knowledge, which is the first reward and which has inherent value to humankind. Space exploration stimulates the creation of both tangible and intangible benefits for humanity.

Tangible benefits

  • Innovation?related applications such as new devices and services
  • advances in science and technology
  • workforce development and industrial capabilities
  • overall stimulation of private companies and industries
  • the general benefit of society and the economy
  • Space Technology for Development and Governance

Intangible benefits

  • enrichment of culture
  • inspiration for citizens
  • building of mutual understanding as a result of international cooperation through launch of satellites.


  • Space War: The ongoing race of exploration can lead to future conflict which can begin with the ones who have superior technology. The development of anti-satellite is one of the major steps towards this.
  • Space debris: Space exploration creates a lot of trash around the planet in the form of space debris. The presence of the debris can impact further exploration programs and are harmful to the earth as well.

Space Debris

  • Space debris is defined as all non-functional, human-made objects, including fragments and elements.
  • They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph.
  • There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger.

What is Kessler Syndrome?

  • Donald J. Kessler proposed it to describe a self-sustaining cascading collision of space debris in LEO.
  • Loss of resources: Current space exploration efforts could be a one-way trip which is considered by the critics as a cause of loss of resources.
  • Danger to life: Astronauts receive exposure to natural dangers while in space.

The Ongoing Indian Space exploration programs

Solar mission- Aditya

  • It isIndian space based Solar Coronagraph intended to study the outermost region of the sun‘Corona’.

Chandrayaan-2 Mission

  • It will be India’s second mission to the Moon and is an advanced version of its previous Chandrayaan-1 mission.
  • GSLV-Mk II will be used to launch it.

GAGAN- Geo Augmented Navigation System

  • GAGAN’’ is an augmentation system to enhance the accuracy and integrity of GPS signals to meet precision approach requirements in Civil Aviation.

Gagan Enabled Mariner’s Instrument for Navigation and Information (GEMINI)

  • It’s a satellite-based advisory service for deep-sea fishermen.
  • It has been developed by Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) and Airport Authority of India (AAI).


  • The Mars Orbiter Mission(MOM), also called Mangalyaan is a space probe orbiting Mars.
  • It was launched on 5 November 2013 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
  • It is India's first interplanetary missionand it made it the fourth space agency to achieve Mars orbit.


  • Gaganyaan is an Indian crewed orbital spacecraft intended to be the formative spacecraft of the Indian Human Spaceflight Programme.

Why space race is challenging?

  • Disagreement over governance: As more states dabble in space exploration, disagreements about rules, regulations, and governance could also arise more frequently.
  • Outdated rules: The rules for space were set out in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and a few associated treaties, when there were only a few satellites and two players. The governing structure for space activities is way out of date and doesn’t reflect today's realities in space.
  • Ineffective or no rules: There are no rules. There’s no space traffic regime or control.
  • Threat to outer environment: Currently, there are thousands of objects in space - satellites and space debris. It’s a wild environment up there with things shooting around and no traffic management to make sure they don’t collide with one another.
  • Unanswered questions over utilization: In addition to space traffic, resource extraction and utilisation is a new area for which legal and governance mechanisms are lacking, and which will become an increasingly important question in the coming years. 

Regulations for Space


  • It wassignedin1967,was agreed through the UN.
  • It is technically binding to those countries who sign up to it.
  • The parties are prohibited from placing nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit, on the Moon, or on other bodies in space.

Challenges in regulation

  • Outer space is to be used for “peaceful purposes” not for the weapons of mass destruction, a challenge was the Bogota Declaration in 1976, privatization of space exploration, the dangers of excessive satellite debris, the utilization of satellite technology for unethical breaches of privacy, the emergence of Quantum Physics.


To conclude, we can observe the great potential in exploring the space for the benefit of the whole of mankind. The space program provides a strong basis for further collaboration at the international level in terms of technology. By citing the potential gains and losses a quiet level of caution is also required to mend the rules of this race for the benefits of all rather than just making it country’s centric.