As the rocket carrying China's first lunar probe blasted off Wednesday evening, it left in its wake a vapor trail of questions about the nature of Asia's new space race.
The continent's giants are jockeying for position beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Japan launched its own moon orbiter last month. India plans to send a similar satellite up next year. The dawn of the Asian space age, however, has been darkened by suspicion, instead of cooperation.
"This means more competition because of the lingering security concerns all three countries have about one another," says Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Because of the military relevance of space missions and technology, real cooperation will be difficult."
The moon shots, all designed to learn more about the lunar atmosphere and surface, have no military purpose, officials in the three new space powers are quick to point out. But in a field where civilian technological advances can easily be put to military use, nations closely scrutinize each of their neighbors' steps forward.
India is nervous about China's intentions, especially in the wake of Beijing's test of an antisatellite missile last January. China worries that Japan's missile defense cooperation with the United States might threaten its interests, and resents Washington's determination to remain the world's dominant space power. Japan is rattled by North Korea's ballistic-missile capability.
Against that background, Gill adds, "an Asian NASA sounds a bit far-fetched."
That, argues Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., is because the Asian nations' space programs are largely driven by "technonationalism; they generate pride domestically and they demonstrate prowess internationally."
The chief scientist for China's moon program, Ouyang Ziyuan, said in an interview earlier this year with the official People's Daily: "Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country's comprehensive national power and is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people's cohesion."
Space programs also boost high-tech skills. "China needs its lunar and manned flight projects to nurture the aerospace industry and bring along a cadre of young engineers who will develop its space industry, GPS, Earth observation, and communications, along with military applications," says Gregory Kulacki, a China analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.
"The main meaning (of the Chinese moon program) on the industrial side is that we have to set up many new abilities in satellitemaking, long-range telemetry, and so on," says Zhang Wei, a senior official with the Chinese National Space Administration.
Such challenges are important, too, in India, where the scientific community is seeking new frontiers now that New Delhi's nuclear program is mature. "The only other avenue for growth and development of scientific technology is space technology," says Swapna Kona, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.
In Japan, space exploration holds out the promise of autonomy. "Japan needs to secure its own means of launching a satellite," says Akinori Hashimoto, a spokesman for Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. "Now, we cannot launch one whenever we want to, and we are concerned about information leakage."
China, Japan and India are all focusing on the moon, says Kulacki, because it is "close, doable" and a logical first step in interplanetary exploration. Some officials see practical rewards beyond the scientific knowledge to be gleaned by mapping and analyzing the lunar surface. The moon is thought to be rich in Helium-3, for example, which could one day be used for nuclear fusion to create energy.
India's Chandrayaan probe will search for Helium-3, the head of India's space research organization said last year. China's Chang'e I orbiter will also sniff for it. "Mineral resources and energy ... will be a very important field that humans will compete for," Ouyang told the People's Daily.
The 1979 U.N. Moon Agreement bans ownership of lunar resources, but none of the nations launching lunar satellites, including the United States, have ratified it, although India has signed it.
India has also been one of the most vociferous opponents of allowing weapons in space. Officials reacted with disquiet to China's destruction of an old weather satellite last January, proving that Beijing could threaten U.S. and other satellites in space warfare. "We are treading a thin line between current defense-related uses of space and its actual weaponization," warned Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee soon after the Chinese missile test. He called on all states to "redouble efforts" toward a treaty guaranteeing the peaceful use of space.
China, too, has long called for such a treaty, which Washington rejects, but some analysts now doubt Beijing's sincerity. "Having recognized the futility of trying to get the U.S. on board, and recognizing how weapons in space could be of benefit to China, that has dulled their enthusiasm," suggests Gill.
Japan, meanwhile, is shifting its approach to space-based defenses in the face of threats from North Korea. A ballistic-missile test in 1998 over its territory jolted Japan's space program into new life. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is seeking to redefine the current "peaceful" use of space to mean "non-aggressive" rather than "nonmilitary," as is currently the case.The "Basic Space" bill enshrining this change is expected to pass by next March, freeing the Japanese Defense Ministry to launch spy satellites.
Contributing: Mark Sappenfield in New Delhi and Takehiko Kambayashi in Tokyo