One small step for Iran: Why Nasa has competition

From Indonesia to North Korea, emerging powers are venturing into space. As President Ahmadinejad's plans blast off, David Whitehouse asks if the world is taking one giant leap towards the unknown

It can be seen clearly, if you know where to look – a faint, moving point of light in the night sky. Amateur observers, and the US military, have already spotted Iran's first home-made satellite, called Omid, meaning "hope", and they have picked up its radio signals, too. For just a few months, Omid will remain in space, along with the upper stage of the Safir-2 rocket that took the satellite into its orbit, until both burn up in the Earth's atmosphere as they ebb back towards the planet.

And so begins a new space age. Iran was jubilant when the rocket launched successfully last week. The Iranian Space Agency said that it was the nation's "first practical step towards acquiring space technology". President Ahmadinejad announced that the "official presence of the Islamic republic was registered in space". Iran has joined the 10 other nations that have used their own technologies to launch their own satellites – the space powers.

However, it's clear that Iran's achievement is not entirely home-made. It has received considerable technical help from North Korea, and Safir-2 is in fact an improved North Korean Taep'o-dong rocket. Also, a section of the rocket's upper-stage equipment, the part that releases the satellite, is based on Chinese technology. It gives a glimpse of the lines of international contact and co-operation taking place behind the scenes.

The launch raised concerns that Iran could soon send nuclear warheads halfway round the world to mainland America. It is true that space technology is dual purpose in that it can be used for peaceful and military ends. The reality is, however, that Safir-2's tech specs are pretty rudimentary. Omid is very small, almost just a metal box and a transmitter, and the accomplishment is chiefly symbolic. While Safir-2 may be the start of the development of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology by Iran, very little progress has been made down that road. Launching a heavy nuclear warhead over intercontinental distances would require a far more powerful rocket, and far more sophisticated technology. Iran won't have that for years – if, indeed, it ever does. But Safir-2 is a message rather than a missile, and the message is that Iran has joined the major league of space power.

Well, not quite. This was once an exclusive club, but it's not what it was. There was a time when you needed the technological might and the finances of a great nation to join, but that was decades ago. The USSR was the club's founder member with its Sputnik 1, launched in October 1957. The US Explorer 1 followed swiftly, in January 1958. The next country to join the club was France, in 1965, followed by Japan (1970), China (1970), the UK (1971), India (1980), Israel (1988), Ukraine (1995) and now Iran. Along the way, there have been some false starts. South Africa tested a home-grown rocket in the 1980s but cancelled the project in 1994. Brazil has tried, and has suffered three launch failures. North Korea said in 1998 it had launched a satellite but analysts did not believe it; later this year, though, North Korea is expected to join the club when it launches a satellite of its own, using the Taep'o-dong.

What was once the epitome of hi-tech and secrecy is now more readily available, as one would expect – more than half a century has passed since Sputnik went into orbit. Nowadays, almost anyone, with the right backing, could muster the technology to build a rocket if they wanted to. Iran's membership of the space power club is the start of a spurt of membership. Over the next few years, we will see indigenous satellites launched from South Korea (planned for this year), Brazil (2011), Indonesia (2014) and possibly Australia, Romania, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey. And it's not just nations; five, possibly six, private companies, all in the US, are developing rockets capable of placing satellites into orbit.

But why do it? Why build your own rocket when you can purchase a launch of a far more capable US or Russian rocket to launch a satellite on your behalf? The chief reason the new contenders want to join the club is national prestige. The Omid satellite that Iran has built is, frankly, not a great deal of use. It's debatable if their future home-made satellites, still tiny, will be any more use in monitoring their own country – and others – than the satellites they can already access on the internet. The Iranians already have short-range missiles, able to reach Israel; perhaps the main effect of getting Omid into orbit will be to reduce the importance of their nuclear effort to national pride because perhaps Iran doesn't now need nuclear power to show it has joined the big league. But, for now, the main thing is that Omid is up there, passing over Iran, and the US as well. That is Omid's start and its end.

But elsewhere, the world's space effort is moving at last. New players, new directions and new allegiances will be seen in the future, as well as the first mumblings of what would be an astonishing project, unthinkable just a few years ago.

America: Obama's next frontier

For years, the US space effort has been worthy but uninspiring. The Space Shuttle went up, went round and round the Earth, and came back again. The US achieved greatness in touching the Moon but it had turned away from the really great adventures of space. Then it was realised that if things carry on that way, little would happen and the manned space programme would wither.

What was required was a destination. Only if astronauts were actually going somewhere would the public's imagination and the political support be recaptured. So, in January 2004, the US changed the aim of its space effort. The Space Shuttle would be retired by 2010, and new rockets and spacecraft would be built with the goal of a return to the Moon by about 2020. Not everyone liked this change. Space scientists feared that money would be taken away from their projects. They were right about the money – but then science is neither the sole justification for going into space, nor the most important.

Retiring the Shuttle in 2010 has caused some consternation as its successor, the Orion capsule launched on the Ares rocket, won't be available until 2014 or 2015. Unhappy at the prospect of relying on Russian spacecraft (with some help from the European Space Agency) to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, Nasa decided to ask private companies to build unmanned cargo craft. So, over the next few years, we will see the first privately made cargo ships plying their trade in space. Many see this as a long-overdue move that will foster private enterprise in orbital space.

In the US, people are waiting to see what Barack Obama will do about space. His choice of a new administrator for Nasa will be an important indicator, given that the outgoing administrator, Mike Griffin, has been closely associated with Ares and Orion. Some want to abandon the project and look mainly back towards the Earth in these troubled environmental times. Others say that would be a colossal mistake. One can perhaps understand the UK's myopic attitude to manned spaceflight, with our limited resources, but short-sightedness on the part of the world's space leader is another matter.

Russia: The Soviet legacy

After the USSR lost the race to the Moon, and convinced the gullible West that it was never even in the race, the Soviet hierarchy lost interest in space, leaving its programme run on until it launched the last of its series of space stations, Mir, in 1986. Then there was the farce of their Space Shuttle rip-off Buran's only flight in 1988.

After the fall of Communism, the space effort practically collapsed, but this state of affairs has begun to change. The Russian economy boomed on high prices for exports such as oil and gas, resulting in the Russian Duma approving a budget of 305 billion roubles (about £6bn) for the Russian Space Agency for 2006-15. Under the current 10-year plan, the budget will increase by 5-10 per cent per year, providing the space agency with a constant influx of money. In addition to the budget, Roskosmos – the Russian Space Agency – plans to have more than 130 billion roubles flowing into its budget by other means, such as industry investments and commercial space launches.

Russia is soon to have some first-class space missions, such as the launch of Phobos-Grunt, which means "Phobos-soil", designed to return samples of the Martian moon Phobos. It will be the first Russian interplanetary mission since the failed Mars-96. If all goes well – and there are no guarantees when it comes to the Red Planet – it will be the first extraterrestrial sample brought back to Earth since the last lunar sample mission by Luna 25 in 1976. Phobos-Grunt is an unmanned lander that will study Phobos and then return a soil sample to Earth. It will also study Mars from orbit, including its atmosphere and dust storms, plasma and radiation. A Chinese Mars orbiter will be sent together with the mission.

Russia is in the midst of a project to upgrade its manned Soyuz spacecraft, which it does periodically. Currently, each Soyuz crew consists of two professional astronauts and one space rookie. The revamped Soyuz, due to lift off in 2011, will carry two professionals and two passengers. Most importantly, as well as being able to dock with the International Space Station, it will also be able to fly around the Moon and return to Earth. One company is already talking of the ultimate space tourism mission. For a little over $100m you could make a circumlunar trip. Interest is said to be strong. There are many in Russia who know the sad history of its manned lunar efforts and how its own mismanagement lost it the race to the Moon, or at least a trip around it. They would like to see such a mission take place.

Europe: Continental thrift

It is possible that the 18-member-state European Space Agency might take an initiative regarding manned spaceflight. It has flirted with the idea before. Twenty years ago, it had the idea of a mini-space shuttle called Hermes; it never came to much, in spite of the agency spending $3bn. For a while, ESA had a joint idea with Russia for a spacecraft called Klipper, which looked promising before it was cancelled. As it is, ESA has an astronaut corps of 16, with another four soon to be selected (11,000 people applied for the post last year). With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, they will have to wait a long time to travel into space. In the future, there will not be as many seats as there has been.

China: Leader of the new powers

With three manned launches behind them, there is much interest in China's space programme. Shenzhou 7 was China's first spacewalk mission, accomplished last year. Building on this experience, they intend next to dock three spacecraft together to form a small space-station. So, late next year, the Shenzhou 8 unmanned space laboratory module, the Shenzhou 9 unmanned cargo craft, and a manned Shenzhou 10 will be joined together in orbit. Because they initially designed the Shenzhou spacecraft with docking technologies imported from Russia, it's possible it could dock with the International Space Station, but that is currently seen as too much of a political gift. China plans a larger space station, too.

China's goal is, in many respects, similar to the US space co-operation philosophy. China intends to draw other nations in while making it very clear to all that the Chinese are in charge. So we can expect to see the participation of friendly nations such as Iran, Pakistan and possibly North Korea.

China's lunar ambitions are clear; it already has a Moon satellite sending back images. According to its officials, the future will involve several phases: orbiting the Moon; an unmanned landing; bring back samples; and then, around 2020, a manned mission. Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut, declared at the International Academy of Astronautics meeting in Beijing in 2007 that building a lunar base was a crucial step to realise a flight to Mars and planets further away.

This is all at a very early preparatory phase. No official manned Moon programme has been announced yet by the authorities, though a Lunar Roving Vehicle was shown on a Chinese TV channel on the 2008 May Day celebrations.

It would be easy to get rather too worked up about China. Mike Griffin, the outgoing head of Nasa, has said: "I personally believe China will be back on the Moon before we are. I think that when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it." But if China does place its astronauts on the Moon a decade or so hence, it will be a short mission that would not be as impressive as the Apollo landings of 40 years ago. To approach what the US intends to do on the Moon will take far greater resources than China currently allocates to space projects – and it would take a long time to develop the technology, too. The fact is that, sooner or later, non-American footprints will be placed on the Moon, but that won't alter the fact that the US-led Moonbase will be the only real game in town.

Walking on the Moon is, however, not uppermost in the minds of China's space authorities. Space research develops technology that can have civil and military uses; for example, satellites can monitor crop growth and ship movements. It is clear that the Chinese military understand that modern warfare depends on how you use space. The Gulf wars showed us that. Satellites are far more useful than tanks. In any future military conflict the space sector will be key, and that's why the Chinese demonstrated that it can knock satellites out of the sky. In January 2007, China launched a missile into space that successfully hit its target, a Chinese weather satellite. It took almost two weeks for the Chinese to confirm they had done it, amid international outcry. China said no one need feel threatened, but few doubt that it was a demonstration intended to threaten the US. Obama and his space advisers know this. Even before he entered the White House, his transition team was talking to the Pentagon and Nasa about speeding up production of new military rockets. Reports suggest that he might even merge the two space programmes – the military efforts in the Pentagon and the civilian programme run by Nasa.

India: attempting re-entry

India was the seventh member of the space club when its own rocket launched the Rohini 1B satellite in 1980. Its current rockets are impressive but not very powerful. The Indian Space Research Organisation has spoken of a manned launch in 2015, but still awaits government approval.

It will realistically require at least a decade for India to achieve this. It has already carried out tests into the technology of re-entry capsules, and has said it will establish an astronaut training centre in Bangalore. Its first two-man capsule would probably be of its own design, but India has said it would like later capsules to be based on Soyuz and built in co-operation with Russia. It could become the fourth nation, after the USSR, USA and China, to launch its own astronauts.

Japan: Moon-gazing

Japan's programme seems to have lost its way. The Japanese have talked of building a manned lunar base in 2030. To do this, astronauts would be sent to the Moon by 2020, though it's hard to see any sign that Japanese politicians really have the inclination for such a costly, ambitious project.

A New space odyssey

China, Japan and India have all spoken of manned lunar missions. If they all embarked on such a project, one could predict that one or more would fall by the wayside. China has said it wants international co-operation; perhaps it will see the benefits of a joint lunar mission, the kudos of leading such a collaboration, and the political benefits of patronage. It would be an astonishing project, signalling the emergence of a new space axis.

Another factor is private enterprise. Next year, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to carry fare-paying passengers to the edge of space. Hundreds of seats have been sold. It is conceivable that the next phase would be taking passengers into orbit, even though the boosters required to achieve orbital velocity are considerably more powerful than those Richard Branson has acquired. The late Arthur C Clarke often wrote about orbiting hotels. Soon, they too will be a step closer. The final frontier is alive once more.