2013 Prediction: Asia Takes Two Routes To Space

China and India have different ambitions in space, but missions from both countries will help us better understand the cosmos.

Chang'e-2
China is going deep.via Wikimedia

Science and technology have utterly transformed human life in the past few generations, and forecasts of the future used to be measured in decades. But big changes arrive faster and faster these days. So here we've shifted our forecast to the near-term, because we're right on the verge of some extraordinary stuff. These are the trends and events to watch out for in 2013. See them all here.

Earth's two most populous nations have major space launches slated for 2013: China will send a lander to the moon and India will propel an orbiter toward Mars. On the surface, their goals appear similar—cement a toehold in a frontier dominated by the U.S., Russia, and Europe—but the ways in which they will achieve them are very different.

China wants to do everything that other nations have done in space, and more, including building its own space station and mounting a lunar sample-return mission. And it has a methodical road map to reach those targets. The planned Chang'e 3 lunar probe will serve as a testbed for launch and landing techniques, as well as cameras, samplers, and other instruments. "China is beyond doing things in space for show," says Gregory Kulacki, head of the China project at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program. Instead, it is building toward "a comprehensive set of space capabilities."

India runs a much smaller, more tightly focused program. Its budget is perhaps a third to a fifth of China's, estimates Dinshaw Mistry, an expert in Asian security and space issues at the University of Cincinnati. Over the past decade, it has launched about a fifth as many spacecraft, most of which have been satellites for furthering the country's development. Its highest profile mission so far, the Chandrayaan-1 moon probe in 2008, carried instruments from the European Space Agency and NASA. The Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, planned for a November launch, will be more independent. But its budget is low and the timetable tight.

Space exploration is anything but routine­—­either mission could fail. But it's more likely they'll both be successful, proving there are several paths to blaze in orbit. Whether by scrappy collaboration or in grand, go-it-alone style, more missions invariably mean more data—and a deeper understanding of space.