Developments in Asia’s space industry may have a long heritage, but they have really taken off in recent years. Asia’s space race and capacity building started on a small scale in 1970, when China and Japan successfully launched their first satellites. These were used to map and connect agricultural and rural areas to telecoms infrastructure — since then, Asian space programmes have been mostly driven by national security and commercial needs, such as communications, weather forecasting and military use. 

China now leads the region in this area. Since 2010, China has conducted more orbital launches per year than all other Asian countries combined, with 32 launches in 2019 alone. The July 2020 launch of a Mars probe carrying a rover marked a major milestone in China’s space programme. In May 2021, the country became the first globally to perform an orbiting, landing and roving operation during its first mission to Mars. 

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Japan and India are the other two forerunners. In Japan, companies are winning contracts to explore the lunar surface aboard SpaceX rockets, while the Indian Space Research Organisation is pushing ahead with developing launch systems and building satellite constellations.

South Korea is also investing $500m this year to develop satellites for communications, weather forecasting, and marine and environmental observation. Its next goal is moon exploration, and is on the way to developing Korea’s first lunar orbiter.

Australia has a well-established space programme too, with companies recently gaining licences to launch suborbital rockets. Meanwhile, not long ago New Zealand became the eleventh country to sign Nasa’s Artemis Accords — an international agreement and US-led effort to return humans to the Moon by 2024 — and Singapore has started developing miniature satellites. 

Even some private sector investors have taken interest in Asian space start-ups, mostly through Series A funding. Since 2012, Chinese start-ups have attracted 28% of global equity investment into the space economy, according to Space Capital. Singapore has attracted 5%, while Indian and Indonesian start-ups have each attracted 3%.

Some of the applications include using satellite imagery with artificial intelligence for mining exploration, transporting emergency medical aid via drones, rockets which can carry up to 1000kg to low-earth orbit, and high-precision 3D map data management for autonomous driving.  

Challenges remain, however. Commercial viability, research and development, and dried-up funding during Covid-19 present hurdles. China-related companies will face added geopolitical tensions too. With some Asian space applications being developed for military use, the region may see heightened tensions in the future, alongside its growing space industry.

Lawrence Yeo is CEO of AsiaBIZ Strategy, a Singapore-based consultancy that provides Asian market research and investment/trade promotion services. E-mail: lawrence@asiabizstrategy.com

This article first appeared in the June/July print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.