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10 leading space programs around the world

Nov. 4, 2013


Iran's claims in January 2012 that it successfully sent a monkey into space — putting the Islamic republic one step closer to executing a manned space flight — shone the spotlight on the growing number of countries with ambitions to make their mark in space.

The U.S. and Russia have long had the world's two most ambitious and unrivalled space programs, but recently several other countries, including unexpected contenders such as Ecuador and Romania, have set their sights on the stars. Only a few of those currently have the capability to launch spacecraft into orbit. Here's a look at 10 space programs that do, as well as that of Canada.

China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, waves as she comes out of the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou-9 spacecraft on June 29, 2012.(Xinhua/Wang Jianmin/Associated Press)


The Asian powerhouse has seemingly been moving at warp speed in recent years to establish itself as a big player in the space race. China already has four manned flights and numerous satellite launches under its belt and is working on establishing its own independently maintained space stations, something only the U.S. and Russia have done to date. In October 2003, China became the third country, after Russia and the U.S., to launch a manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 5, into orbit. By 2008, taikonaut Zhai Zhigang performed China's first spacewalk on the outside of the Shenzhou 7 space capsule. Just last June, China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, blasted off for a 13-day mission to the orbiting module Tiangong 1 — a prototype for a future space station. Next up is the launch of Shenzhou 10, scheduled for June 2013.

Read more:

· Chinese astronauts blast off on historic mission
· Chinese space program 'on the rise'
· China National Space Program

Scientists in Iran surround a monkey ahead of a space launch in this undated photo. Iran says it successfully sent the monkey into space on Jan. 28, 2013. (Associated Press)


Iran's space ambitions caught the world's attention on Jan. 28, 2013, when its state-run news agency reported that the country successfully sent a monkey into space. The launch of the rocket, dubbed Pishgam — or Pioneer in Farsi — was described in a brief report on state TV as a step that will bring Tehran closer to being able to carry out a manned space flight, its ultimate goal. Iran has long said that it wants to send an astronaut into space and last year also announced plans to build a space station. The Iranian Space Agency has reported that since it was established in 2003, it has successfully launched several satellites into orbit, including one that was launched jointly with Russia in 2005. In 2010, Iran said it had launched an Explorer rocket into space carrying a mouse, a turtle and worms. The country's space agency has a major satellite launch complex near Semnan, roughly 200 kilometres east of Tehran, but has not released any details of its planned space station.

Read more:

· Iranian Space Agency
· Iran announces satellite launch success

Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon waves ahead of the January 2003 launch of the Columbia space shuttle mission at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Ramon and six other crew members were killed when the shuttle disintegrated upon its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.(Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)


Israel began looking into space exploration in the 1960s and established a National Space Studies Board in 1963. The Israel Space Agency was created in 1983 and by 1988, launched its first satellite, the Israeli-built Ofeq-1. Since then, a dozen more satellites have been launched by Israel. The country's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, went into space aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia on Jan. 16, 2003, but died along with six other crew members when the shuttle disintegrated while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. Since then, the space agency has been working with other major space programs and has co-operation agreements with eight space agencies, including NASA and the Canadian Space Agency.

Read more:

· Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle takes off at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India, in 2011. (Indian Space Research Organization/Associated Press)


India has had an active space program since the 1960s. It has launched dozens of satellites since the mid-1970s and even sent a spacecraft to orbit the moon about five years ago. Now, the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) is set to launch a mission to Mars in November 2013. India will search the planet for methane and will also gather data on the planet's weather systems. Plans to put two Indian astronauts into orbit by 2016 are also in the works, at an estimated cost of $2.3 billion. However, India's space program has had its share of snags. In April 2010, a rocket carrying a satellite and powered by a cryogenic engine that was the first to be developed in India plunged into the Bay of Bengal minutes after takeoff after the engine failed to ignite. Eight months later, a similar rocket exploded just after liftoff.

Read more:

· India's Mars mission blasts off tomorrow
· India plans Mars mission
· India plans 1st manned space flight for 2016
· Indian rocket explodes after liftoff

The Ariane 5 rocket is shown on its launching pad in Kourou, French Guiana, in September 2009. (European Space Agency/P Baudon/Associated Press)


France's space agency, the Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES), was founded in 1961. It launched its first satellite in 1965 and since then has set up a launch base in Kourou, French Guiana, and established the Toulouse Space Centre. In 2011, its Ariane 5 launch vehicle completed five flights, bringing the total number of consecutive successful missions since February 2003 to 46. More recently, France has contributed some of the scientific instruments that make up NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, a research robot sent to Mars in November 2011 to search for signs that the planet may have at one point sustained life.

The Soyuz rocket transporting Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and U.S. astronaut Thomas Marshburn to the International Space Station blasts off from Kazakhstan on Dec. 19, 2012. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)


Russia has long been a major player in the space race, as one of only three countries to carry out manned missions, and launched the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into space in 1957. Most recently, it launched an upgraded version of the Soyuz aircraft — an unmanned spacecraft first used by the Soviet space program in 1966 — from the Russian-leased launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 19, 2012. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and U.S. astronaut Tom Marshburn accompanied cosmonaut Roman Romanenko on that mission to the International Space Station. However, the Russian program has also had some gaffes in recent years. A space probe designed to travel to one of Mars's moons crashed in January of last year, showering debris over the southern Pacific. The Russian Federal Space Agency is now gearing up to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon in 2015 and plans to launch it from the Vostochny cosmodrome, a new launch site it is building in the far east of the country. Its last and only moon mission was in 1973. President Vladimir Putin has vowed to invest roughly $1 billion Cdn into the Vostochny launch facility, not far from the Chinese border.

Read more:

· Russia plans unmanned moon mission in 2015

Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide conducts a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station on Sept. 5, 2012. (NASA/Associated Press)


Japan has sent dozens of satellites into orbit, mostly on rockets built by other nations, since 1970. But it wasn't until 2003 that its three space research organizations were merged into the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). In July 2012, Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide travelled to the International Space Station on the Russian Soyuz aircraft for a long-stay mission. Japan has also successfully sent unmanned cargo vessels to the ISS, carrying food, supplies and scientific equipment. It plans to send one H-II Transfer Vehicle a year on re-supply missions to the station until 2015. However, it's still trying to catch up with China, the new leader in Asia's space race. Japan currently has no vehicles that can take humans into space, but it announced in 2005 that it planned to develop a manned spacecraft and send it to the moon by 2025.

Read more:

· Japan unveils 20-year plan to visit the moon
· Astronauts head to International Space Station

The Mars rover Curiosity, shown in this graphic rendering, is on a two-year mission on the Red Planet to determine whether the environment was ever favourable to microbial life. (NASA/Associated Press)

United States

The U.S. has historically been the leader in the space race. It built the first reusable space vehicle to conduct manned space flights and launched five working space shuttles into space since 1981 (the first test shuttle, the Enterprise, never made it into space). The shuttles flew more than 130 missions and carried more than 350 people into space, according to NASA, the U.S. space agency. But in July 2011, NASA retired the last of its three surviving shuttles, ending the 30-year-old shuttle program. In November 2011, it launched the Mars Curiosity rover mission, marking NASA's seventh landing on the Red Planet and its 19th Mars mission, which includes sending orbiters to explore the planet from a distance. The robot carries a suite of 10 scientific instruments with which it collects and tests rocks and other materials that may point to evidence that the planet supported life in the past and might be able to do so in the future. NASA has yet to establish a clear path forward for its astronauts, but U.S. President Barack Obama has set a goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s. Before that happens, though, the U.S. plans to send astronauts to an asteroid. NASA announced in January 2013 that it was teaming up with the European Space Agency to develop a bell-shaped spacecraft called Orion that could carry astronauts to asteroids and to Mars.

The European Space Agency's Ariane 5 rocket stands on the launching pad in Kourou, French Guiana.(P. Baudon/European Space Agency/Associated Press)


The European Space Agency (ESA) is an organization with 20 member states, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark and France. The agency, whose budget in 2012 was about $5.4 billion, began as two agencies set up by several European countries in 1962 and eventually merged into one. Since then, it has launched scores of satellites and recently launched a rocket from South America to resupply the International Space Station. The Ariane 5 took off from the space agency's launch pad in French Guiana on March 23, 2012. Like other space agencies, the ESA is also setting its sights on Mars and has established the ExoMars program for this purpose. The agency hopes to perform a controlled landing on the planet in 2016 and follow it up with a rover mission, carried out in co-operation with the Russian Space Agency, in 2018.

Ukranian astronaut Leonid Kadenyuk, shown heading to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre, blasted off into space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on Nov. 19, 1997. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)


The State Space Agency of Ukraine (NSAU) was created in 1992 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and by 1994, the first space vehicle from the Russian-Ukranian Coronas series was launched. By 1995, the first satellite to be officially registered as Ukrainian was sent into orbit, carrying technology that could observe the atmosphere and surface of Earth. By 1997, the first post-Soviet era Ukrainian astronaut, Leonid Kadenyuk, launched into space aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia, along with U.S. and Japanese astronauts. Ukraine says that as of 2011, it had launched more than 127 rockets and more than 240 satellites, belonging to 19 countries, into orbit.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is a Leafs fan even in space as this photo posted on Twitter on Jan. 6, 2013, attests. (Chris Hadfield/ NASA/Associated Press)

Canada *

Canada is one of the countries that has a space program but does not have launch capability. Nevertheless, its space program has taken centre stage in the last few months, with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield documenting his mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with mesmerizing photos of Earth shared via social media — to the delight of many on solid ground below. He is set to make history in March when he becomes the first Canadian commander of the station, a landmark accomplishment in Canada's 50-year-old space program. An earlier and much-touted Canadian space breakthrough was the Canadarm, a Canadian-built robotic arm that first twitched to life aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 1981. A second generation of the arm is now installed at the ISS, where it helps move equipment, supplies and astronauts. However, Canada's status as a space-faring nation is slipping. According to a November review commissioned by the federal government, Canada's space program has been lacking direction and falling behind that of other countries. Canada has spent less money on the program than even smaller countries such as Belgium, Israel and Luxembourg, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Recently, Canada has unveiled new rover prototypes, which the agency says is an important step in developing the next generation of vehicles for space exploration.

Read more:

· What is Canada's future in space?

With files from CBC News, Canadian Press, Associated Press

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