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Launch Vehicle Development In Asia Pacific Region

By | July 19, 2004

      By Kirby Ikin

      The world is entering an interesting new era as China ventures into manned space flight. Following in the footsteps of only two other nations, China has embarked on a far- reaching effort to establish itself as a superpower through the demonstration of a capability that only the United States and Russia have achieved.

      Outside the arena of manned flight, various unmanned systems in Asia are seeking to stake their claim in the already crowded satellite launch market. Amid industry acknowledged oversupply of launch capabilities, it appears the introduction of several new vehicles in the region is happening anyway. In virtually all of these cases, the vehicles are under development largely for reasons of national pride, self-reliance, and the desire to develop skills and capabilities deemed important for future industrial growth.

      India’s Innovation

      India has flown both its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and its Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV). While both vehicles have been developed to support India’s extensive domestic satellite programs in communications and remote sensing, ISRO has a stated goal of offering these vehicles in the commercial market.

      Japan, still recovering from the setback of the recent H2-A failure, is in the process of transitioning marketing of this vehicle to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (the prime contractor) from Japan Rocket Systems. While also designed to support Japan’s domestic program, this vehicle always was intended to compete in the commercial market and will do so along with all the other heavy-launch-vehicle service providers.

      More interesting is the Japanese plan to introduce a medium-launch vehicle known as Galaxy Express. With Lockheed Martin as a partner, this venture will seek to develop a vehicle capable of handling LEO (low-Earth-orbit) and light-to-medium GTO missions. Those niches have considerably less competition than does the target market of the H2-A, which is facing dimming prospects as satellite operators generally are looking more favorably at launching smaller geosynchronous communications satellites.

      One example is the recent order from Singtel Optus for two small geosynchronous satellites from Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences [ORB]. The satellites use the space technology company’s Star spacecraft platform. Both satellites have slightly more than four kilowatts of power.

      Chinese Ambition

      China continues to evolve its nation’s product line of launch vehicles. Aside from the manned capability of the Long March 2F, China is reported to have several new designs under development that include a new heavy booster. While these developments are likely to be aimed at supporting domestic needs, there likely will be efforts to introduce some of these vehicles to the commercial marketplace. In the case of Chinese vehicles, though, the export-license barriers remain a considerable impediment to commercial success.

      Lastly, Australia’s Asia Pacific Space Centre (APSC) continues its efforts to establish a commercial launch facility utilizing the proposed Russian Aurora launch vehicle at Christmas Island. Where the APSC effort primarily is a commercial venture with funding from the Australian government, it will be an uphill battle to secure commercial funding in such a depressed launch market. The recent decision by the European Space Agency (ESA) to launch Soyuz from Kourou must also undermine this venture’s probability of advancing.

      Of the above planned or existing launchers, the H2-A and Aurora would be competing with Atlas-V, Proton, Sea Launch, Ariane-5 and Delta-IV (if the latter rocket were to return to the commercial market). With these vehicles having a collective capability on the order of 50 flights per year, and the expected demand to average around 21 launches in the foreseeable future, it is clear that these new entrants will face a buyer’s market and a difficult task.

      With India’s PSLV and GSLV as well as the new Chinese variants primarily designed to meet domestic needs, their ability to pick up the occasional commercial launch will be more akin to icing on the cake rather than an important factor. The PSLV already has launched several small payloads for non-Indian customers.

      The Japanese Galaxy Express is perhaps the best-timed new launch entrant. While there are two well-entrenched competitors for it in the shape of Delta-2 and Soyuz, there also is an identifiable market on the order of between five and six appropriately sized geostationary commercial satellites per year in the foreseeable future plus signs of increasing interest in this payload class.

      Whether these vehicles are successful in capturing commercial missions or not, it must be recognized that every domestic mission that they launch is one fewer mission open to international commercial competition. Hence, the greatest impact of the various new and proposed vehicles may lie in shrinking the competitively bid market for launches and not necessarily increasing the competition. Either way, satellite operators should benefit from competitive pricing for launch services.

      Kirby Ikin is managing director of Asia Pacific Aerospace Consultants Pty Ltd. He can be reached by phone at 011 61 2 9988 0252 or by e-mail at

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