While most space-related researches are conducted by astronomers with ground-based telescopes, the physical exploration is carried out by both human spaceflight and unmanned robotic space probes.
The main purpose of space exploration is advancing scientific research, uniting different countries, and ensuring the survival of humanity for a long period of time.
The early era of exploring space (the 1950s) was driven by a ‘Space Race’ between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, many nations have their own space agencies working under certain rules and policies.
In particular, more than 70 government space organisations and tons of private companies are currently engaged in activities related to space research. A few of them are far ahead of others, in terms of achievement, capabilities, and annual budget.
Taking these key factors into consideration, we have compiled a list of top space organisations (both government and private) in the world. All annual budgets are converted into US dollars.
11. Canadian Space Agency
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques’ mission
Annual Budget: $247 million (2018)
Canadian Space Agency has contributed their research, technology, and expertise to world space efforts, especially while working with NASA and ESA. It has delivered a $1.3 billion Mobile Servicing System to the International Space Station (ISS), including Dextre, Canadarm2, and multiple robotic workstations.
The agency doesn’t have any rocket launch capability beyond the upper atmosphere. It mostly relies on other nations like India, the United States, and Russia to launch its satellite into orbit. However, this is going to change soon as they are planning to construct a Canadian-made launcher.
10. National Centre for Space Studies (France)
The facility in Toulouse | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Annual Budget: $2.43 billion (2018)
French Space Agency mainly focuses on five areas: civil applications of space, access to space, science and technology research, sustainable development, and security and defense.
The agency is currently working with Germany and other governments to develop a reusable launch vehicle powered by methane. The aim is to drastically bring down the cost and reduce the duration of reusable rocket refurbishment.
They are also developing a technique called formation flying that involves keeping multiple satellites and their heavy components in a tightly-controlled configuration, as close as hundreds of feet apart in an orbit.
In collaboration with the Indian Space Agency (ISRO), they deployed the Megha-Tropiques satellite into orbit, which is currently analyzing the water cycle in the context of climate change.
9. Italian Space Agency (ASI)
Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module on ISS | 2001 | Credit: NASA
Annual Budget: $1.8 billion (2016)
Although established in 1988, the Italian Space Agency drew extensively on the work of many experienced Italian scientists and earlier national organisations. In 1996, they launched their first big satellite mission –named BeppoSAX — to examine the universe in the X-ray.
Later, the agency collaborated on several major international space exploration projects, such as Cassini-Huygens, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Venus Express, Juno, and XMM-Newton.
The Italian space industry has also involved in human spaceflight activities. Its Shuttle Multi-purpose Logistics Module cargo containers provide an important function in storing and transferring instruments to the ISS.
At present, the agency is a partner in the ESA’s heavy-lift launch vehicle — Arian 5 — programme that can put a payload of over 11,000 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit.
8. German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Credit: Head Office of German Aerospace Center
Annual Budget: $2.55 billion (2016)
German Aerospace Center focuses on space, aeronautics, transport, energy, security, and digitalisation. In addition to conducting its own missions, it also plans and implements the space program on behalf of the German federal government.
The agency is working on ultra-efficient, low carbon dioxide power generation and solar thermal power generation technologies, and renewable energy sources. In the field of transportation, they are maintaining mobility, saving resources, protecting the environment, and enhancing transportation safety.
Some of their major projects include the global navigation satellite system Galileo, Mars Express, and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. In the coming years, they will be conducting research into areas like propulsion technology, satellite development, and space mission concepts.
7. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
Image credit: JAXA
Annual Budget: $2.03 billion (2013)
Designed as a core performance agency to support the Japanese government’s overall aerospace development, JAXA conducts integrated operations, from basic research and development to implementation. It’s involved in several advanced missions, including satellite launch, possible manned exploration of the Moon, and asteroid exploration.
They have been actively involved in developing satellites for other agencies. In 2005, they launched the Multi-Functional Transport Satellite 1R for weather observation. One year later, they launched the second version of this satellite to help direct air traffic. And recently, they launched the first Kenyan satellite to low Earth orbit.
Ongoing projects with NASA are the Global Precipitation Measurement Core satellite, Aqua Earth Observation Satellite, and the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission.
Testing communication technologies has remained JAXA’s main focus. In 2018, they announced that they will be collaborating with Sony to study a laser communication system from the Kibo (ISS module).
Annual Budget: Not disclosed as it’s a private agency
A decade ago, no one would have believed that a private company can compete with government space agencies. But the ambition, dedication and hard work of SpaceX’s team have literally changed people’s minds.
The company has achieved several milestones that no other private space agency has managed to do so far:
- First privately funded liquid propellant rocket (Falcon 1) reached orbit in 2008
- First private company to send spacecraft to the ISS (Dragon in 2012)
- First propulsive landing for an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2015)
- First successful reuse of an orbital rocket (Falcon 9 in 2017)
Today, SpaceX is known as the most successful private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company. Their main objective is to reduce the price and improve the reliability of the access to space, by a factor of 10.
In 2016, Elon Musk (CEO) revealed the mission of architecture of the Mars Transport System program. One year later, he unveiled an updated system configuration, now called the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). It’s planned to be the largest and fully reusable rocket, scheduled for the early 2020s.
Using BFR, the company plans to land 2 cargo ships (unmanned) to Mars in 2022. In 2014, they will fly another 4 ships to Mars including the first people.
5. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)
ISRO launches its 100th satellite onboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle
Annual Budget: $1.5 billion (2018)
Indian Space Research Organisation harnesses space technology for national development while pursuing planetary exploration and space science research. They have carried out several major operations on both the national and international levels.
The agency maintains a series of multipurpose geostationary satellites (INSAT) and remote sensing satellites (IRS) that fulfill the nation’s growing demand for telecommunication and Earth observation respectively.
It also develops application-specific satellite tools and products to aid weather forecasts, navigation, geographic information systems, telemedicine, and search and rescue operations.
ISRO is known for its cost-efficient and reliable launch systems. India’s first lunar probe was launched in 2008, using a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-XL rocket). The estimated cost for the project was only $54 million.
In 2014, they successfully sent a spacecraft to Martian orbit in the very first attempt. The total expenditure for this mission was $75 million, making it the most cost-efficient Mars mission ever.
In 2017, ISRO made a world record for launching 104 satellites in one go, using PSLV-C37. Impressed by their progress, the government increased ISRO’s annual budget by 23 percent.
The agency is moving forward with the development of reusable launch vehicles, single and two-stage to orbit vehicles, semi-cryogenic engines, and human spaceflight projects.
4. Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos)
Russian astronaut, Anton Shkaplerov, on extravehicular activity to continue outfitting the ISS | Credit: NASA
Annual Budget: $3.27 billion (2015)
Roscosmos is a coordinating hub for all kinds of space activities in Russia. It conducts variety of civilian activities, including astronaut projects and monitoring Earth, and coordinates military launches with the Defence Ministry of the Russian Federation.
The new Roscosmos State Corporation is formed by merging the re-nationalized Russian space industry and the United Rocket and Space Corporation. However, the country’s contribution to space technologies long predates these events.
Between 1955 and 1965, its former Soviet Space Program racked up many world firsts, including the first artificial Earth satellite named Sputnik-1, the first man (Yuri Gagarin) and woman (Valentina Tereshkova) in space, the first space flight to carry more than one crewman into orbit (Voskhod 1), and the first spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the Moon (Luna 1).
Roscosmos was formed in a completely different era, right after the termination of the Soviet Union Program. Now the agency provides launch services to other nations and performs various spacecraft missions of its own, such as GLONASS navigation satellites, telecommunications, and military satellites. Also, it is putting a small portion of resources into the ISS.
Roscosmos is currently working on the ExoMars mission — to find evidence of life on Mars — in collaboration with ESA. They are also developing a fully robotic lunar base (Luna-Glob), which is planned to be launched in the early 2020s.
3. European Space Agency (ESA)
ESA’s Headquarters in Paris, France | Wikimedia commons
Annual Budget: $7 billion (2018)
The European Space Agency is an international organization with 22 member states. By harmonizing the intellectual and financial assets of all members, the agency can manage activities and programs far beyond the scope of any single European nation.
ESA is one of the major contributors to the ISS. Since its inception, it has been actively involved in unmanned exploration missions to the Moon and other planets, telecommunication, developing launch vehicles, and Earth observation.
The agency has its own launch system, Ariane, which has gone through multiple generations of developments over the last four decades.
The satellites and equipment developed by ESA have visited different planets in our solar system, including Mars Express, Cassini (developed in collaboration with NASA), which has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004.
ESA’s space probe named Rosetta took close pictures of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and sent a lander to the surface. It’s space telescope GAIA is currently mapping billions of astronomical objects with unprecedented accuracy.
Other major recent projects include Venus Express that is continuously sending data from its polar orbit around Venus, LISA Pathfinder which is studying gravitational waves, and the James Webb Space Telescope (led by NASA).
The agency has currently projects planned for Jupiter (JUICE) and Mercury (BepiColombo), and others that will observe the energetic universe (Athena) and study dark matter (Euclid). They are also developing the next generation of their Galileo navigation satellite system.
2. China National Space Administration (CNSA)
CNSA launching its first soft lunar landing mission with Long March 3 B carrier rocket
Annual Budget: $11 billion (2017)
China National Space Administration is responsible for planning and implementing all space missions on the national level, and signing government agreements related to space research.
Unlike other space organisations worldwide, CNSA is not involved with ISS. In fact, it has its own small space station. Also, it carries out regular launches by itself using a family of expendable launch systems named Long March.
Since 2003, they have conducted many manned space missions and so far, 11 Chinese astronauts have traveled in space. In 2012, a 3-astronaut crew aboard Shenzhou 9 made the first manned spacecraft docking in space, attaching it to a prototype space station Tiangong-1.
In 2014, CNSA successfully made the first soft landing on the moon using its first robotic lunar lander and rover, named Chang’e 3. Other than this, in 2007, China successfully carried out an anti-satellite test on its own machines.
1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
All Saturn V launches, 1967–1973 | Source: NASA
Annual Budget: $20.7 billion (2018)
For 6 decades, NASA has led peaceful space exploration, making discoveries about Earth, other planets, solar systems, galaxies, and our universe. It’s an independent organisation that isn’t a part of any executive department but reports directly to the U.S President.
Since its inception, most space exploration efforts (in the US) have been led by NASA, including the Skylab space station, a partially reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft named Space Shuttle, and the most popular human spaceflight program, Apollo Moon landing missions.
Most of us know something about NASA’s work, but have no idea about how many different things it does. NASA is composed of four mission directorates –
- Aeronautics Research for developing advanced aviation technologies
- Science for studying the origin and evolution of Earth, solar system, and the universe.
- Space Technology for developing space explorations technologies and space science.
- Human Exploration and Operation dealing with the management of manned space programs, including those to the ISS, launch-related missions, space communications, and transportations.
Several research centers are affiliated, including the Johnson Space Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Langley Research Center.
The organisation has successfully launched more than 200 manned flights, and they are currently working on more than 70 missions.
Some of its greatest mission include Apollo, Hubble Space Telescope, Viking 1 probe that touched down on Mars in 1976, Chandra X-ray Observatory, Cassini-Huygens that reached Saturn in 2004, and the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that made numerous important discoveries about Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and reached interstellar space.