While waiting on the new NASA leader, the United States continues its focus on the moon, with Martian aspirations, with its technically troubled Constellation system. After the space shuttle retires in 2010, NASA will find itself without a manned spaceflight capability until Constellation is completed as early as 2015.
Capability: High, but subject to change with the retirement of the space shuttle. Russia
Six private cosmonauts have paid tens of millions of dollars each for rides on Russian Soyuz ships, and the demand is now so great that the Russian space agency plans to launch the first mission dedicated to paying passengers next year. Russia seems to have found its niche, serving the emerging commercial spaceflight industry including selling rides to NASA's astronauts. It has even approved plans to send a manned commercial mission to the moon if only two passengers will step up with $100 million each for tickets.
Capability: High, limited by private capital. China
Last month, France signed on for a sat launch on a Chinese Long March rocket. The deal circumvents U.S. restrictions on Chinese commercial launches by using a satellite made without American parts. It should boost China's economic clout by setting an important precedent in the lucrative commercial-launch market. Meanwhile, China continues to send taikonauts to orbit aboard its Shenzhou spaceship and has just announced plans to build a space station. Is a manned moon landing next?
Capability: High, along with its ambition. Europe
The European Space Agency has seemed content to sit back and watch the rest of the space-faring world pour money into manned spaceflight and exploratory missions while focusing on lower-cost satellite launches. But plans to convert its Automated Transfer Vehicle from a space cargo container into a manned spaceship, unveiled last year, could make Europe the fourth world power to develop manned spaceflight capability, if it so desires.
Capability: Moderate, limited mainly by its own ambition, or lack thereof. Japan
Japan wants to recover its reputation in the space-launch businesstarnished with the 2003 failure of its H-2A rocketwith the new H-2B. The bigger, more powerful rocket should enable the launch of multiple satellites simultaneously, thereby making Japan more competitive in the sat launch business. It will also lift the new H-2 Transfer Vehicle, built to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
Capability: Moderate, but growing. India
Last month, India's Planning Commission signed off on a proposed two-person manned spaceship to be launched by 2015 on an existing satellite launcher. The plan follows last year's successful launch of the Chandrayaan 1 lunar orbiter that dropped a smaller probe to crash-land the Indian flag on the lunar surface. The agency also plans to build and launch a Mars probe in the near future.
Capability: Moderate, but growing. Iran
On February 3, the Iranian government unveiled a space launch center and launched a satellite called Omid, or Hope, into orbit on a Safir 2 rocket. "With this launch, the Islamic Republic of Iran has officially achieved a presence in space," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced to the world. Ahmadinejad denied that the launch was anything but a statement of "peace and brotherhood," but that is just a matter of semantics, says the Space Policy Institute's Henry Hertzfeld. "In space, there is nothing that I'm aware of that doesn't have dual uses, from the most modest of launch vehicles and satellites to the very big programs," Hertzfeld says. In other words, a satellite launcher and a missile are virtually indistinguishable.
Capability: Low, but slowly improving. North Korea
North Korea says it plans to launch its Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite on a rocket dubbed Unha-2 any day now. The Koreans and Iranians have been sharing rocket technology, and their programs have progressed at similar rates. Even though Iran succeeded in reaching orbit first, Nathan Hughes, a military analyst at global intelligence firm STRATFOR, says that North Korea is actually ahead of Iran in building "what is basically an extremely large Scud," a missile built by the former Soviet Union and a direct descendant of the World War II-era V2 rocket.
Capability: Low, but improving.
|Originally published at Twixel.|