While most space-related research works are conducted by astronomers with ground-based telescopes, 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.
More than 70 government space organizations and hundreds 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 expenditure.
Taking these key factors into consideration, we have compiled a list of top space organizations (both government and private) in the world.
Note: Annual budget and expenditure are converted into US dollars.
12. Canadian Space Agency
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques’ mission
Annual Budget: $388 million
Canadian Space Agency (CSA) leads the advancement and application of space technologies for the benefit of Canadians and humanity. It provides its research and expertise to other leading space agencies like NASA and ESA.
CSA has made several contributions to the International Space Station (ISS) as well. It has developed a $1.3 billion Mobile Servicing System for ISS, which consists of Dextre, Canadarm2, Mobile Base System, and several robotics workstations.
This system plays an important role in station assembly and maintenance — it moves hardware around the station, service instruments and other machines attached to the ISS, and supports astronauts working in space.
So far, more than 20 Canadian research works have been performed aboard the ISS. A few of them are still in progress.
Since the agency doesn’t have any rocket launch capability beyond the upper atmosphere, it mostly relies on other nations like India, Russia, and the USA to put its satellite into orbit. However, this is going to change soon as they are planning to construct a Canadian-made launcher.
11. Korea Aerospace Research Institute
KSLV launch | Credit KARI
Annual Budget: $553 million+
Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) aims to enhance the national economy and human life through exploration, development, and technical advancements in the field of space science and technology. Their operations can be split into four parts:
- R&D and core technology for satellites, rockets, and aircraft
- Distribution of information regarding aerospace technology
- Commercialization of technology
- Technical outsourcing activities with private and government entities
KARI is working on various satellites, such as the STSAT (science and technology satellite), the COMS (communication, ocean, and meteorological satellite), and KOMPSAT (Korean multi-purpose satellite) Series. They are also investing in the lunar exploration project, high-altitude airships, and a multi-purpose helicopter project.
In 2021, they launched KSLV-2, a three-stage rocket with a payload capacity of 1,500 kilograms. In 2022, they used KSLV-2 to put performance verification satellites onto the Sun-synchronous orbit (700 kilometers). In doing so, they become the seventh country to put a heavy satellite (more than 1 ton) into orbit.
Furthermore, the agency has more than 5,800 patents and intellectual properties, which account for ~55% of the entire domestic aerospace patents and intellectual properties.
10. German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Credit: Head Office of German Aerospace Center
Annual Budget: $1.5 billion+
German Aerospace Center (DLR) focuses on space, aeronautics, transport, energy, security, and digitalization. In addition to conducting its own missions, it also plans and implements the space program on behalf of the German federal government.
It has nearly 10,000 employees at 30+ locations in Germany. Its facilities and institutions are spread over 13 sites, which perform their own research, development, and operations.
Some of their major projects include the global navigation satellite system Galileo, Mars Express, and Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.
They are currently working on TanDem-X (for digital elevation measurement), Prisma satellite project, TerraSAR-X, (an imaging radar Earth observation satellite), Bispectral InfraRed Detector, GRACE (gravity recovery and climate experiment), EnMap (environmental mapping and analysis program), and various other mission to advance human knowledge.
Unlike most other space organizations, DLR is working on ultra-efficient, low-carbon dioxide power generation, 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.
In the coming years, they will be conducting research into areas like propulsion technology, satellite development, and space mission concepts.
DLR is also heavily investing in quantum technology. It has formed separate institutes to conduct fundamental research into quantum sensor systems onboard the ISS and develop software and applications for quantum computers.
9. Italian Space Agency (ASI)
Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module on ISS | 2001 | Credit: NASA
Annual Budget: $2.1 billion+
The Italian Space Agency (ASI) drew extensively on the work of many experienced Italian scientists and earlier national organizations that had been studying space activities for decades. In less than 30 years, the agency has established itself as one of the major players in the field of space science and satellite technologies.
In 1996, it launched its first big satellite mission –named BeppoSAX — to study the origin of gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic events in the universe.
Later, the agency collaborated with other national space companies to work on major projects like Cassini-Huygens, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Venus Express, Juno, and XMM-Newton.
It has also been involved in human spaceflight activities. Its Shuttle Multi-purpose Logistics Module cargo containers, for example, play an important role in storing and transferring instruments to the ISS.
Today, ASI is recognized at both the European level and global level. It is currently working on ESA’s Arian 5 mission (which can carry a payload of about 11,000 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit) and Vega small launcher (which is capable of putting 1,500 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit).
8. National Centre for Space Studies (France)
The facility in Toulouse | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Annual Budget: $2.73 billion
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 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.
They collaborate with several other space companies on various projects, such as space probes like Rosetta, Venus Express, and Mars Express, and orbital telescopes like COROT and XMM-Newton. With NASA, they have worked on missions like PARASOL (the Earth-observing research satellite) and CALIPSO (the environment and weather satellite).
The agency is also involved in a non-profit International Cospas-Sarsat Programme (which aims to develop a search and rescue satellite system) and in the Galileo Navigation Programme alongside European Space Agency.
7. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
Image credit: JAXA
Annual Budget: $1.55 billion+
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 is 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 a few years ago, they launched the first Kenyan satellite to low Earth orbit.
JAXA has been actively collaborating with NASA on various projects, including the Global Precipitation Measurement Core satellite, Aqua Earth Observation Satellite, and the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission.
However, throughout these years, their main focus has been testing and implementing communication technologies. In 2018, the agency announced that they would be collaborating with Sony to study a laser communication system from the Kibo (ISS module).
JAXA has also developed several launch rockets. H-IIA and H-IIB rockets, for instance, are used to launch weather and engineering test satellites, the Epsilon rocket is used for science missions like X-ray astronomy, and S-310 and SS-520 rockets are used to conduct experiments in the upper atmosphere.
6. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)
ISRO launches its 100th satellite onboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle
Annual Budget: $1.7 billion
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.
Their short-term goals include sending unmanned spacecraft to the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Sun and sending humans into space, at an altitude of about 400 kilometers for at least seven days. The long-term plans include sending spacecraft to distant planets like Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune.
Annual Budget: Not disclosed as it’s a private agency
Annual Revenue: $2 billion+
A decade ago, no one would have believed that a private company could 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)
- First private company to launch the largest satellite constellation (Starlink in 2020)
Today, SpaceX is known as the most successful private 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 addition to launching satellites to low Earth orbit and beyond, SpaceX is working on two major projects. The first is the satellite internet constellation called Starlink, which aims to provide commercial internet service. The profit generated from this project will allow SpaceX to achieve its long-term goal: the colonization of Mars.
The second is Starship, a fully reusable, super heavy-lift launch system for orbital and interplanetary spaceflight. It is designed to be the most powerful launch rocket ever built, with a payload capacity of 100 tons to low Earth orbit. And since it is designed to re-fly several times, it will significantly cut down the spacecraft’s overhead cost.
4. Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos)
Russian astronaut, Anton Shkaplerov, on extravehicular activity to continue outfitting the ISS | Credit: NASA
Annual Budget: $1.92 billion
Roscosmos is a coordinating hub for all kinds of space activities in Russia. It conducts a 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 International Space Station program.
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: $7.63 billion
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. It has developed a science laboratory module named Columbus and an observatory module named Cupola for the ISS. The agency has also built automated transfer vehicles for ISS resupply. Each vehicle is capable of carrying 7,660 kilograms of payload.
As per the latest estimates, the cost of development and maintenance of ISS is approaching $110 billion, of which ESA has committed to paying about $8.5 billion. Approximately 89% of the costs of ESA’s ISS share has been contributed by Germany (40%), France (30%), and Italy (19%).
Since its inception, ESA 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 and 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. Its space telescope GAIA is currently mapping billions of astronomical objects with unprecedented accuracy.
Other major recent projects include Venus Express, which 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), which allows researchers to view too old and too far objects.
The agency currently has 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+
China National Space Administration (CNSA) is responsible for planning and implementing all space missions on the national level, and signing government agreements related to space research.
Unlike most other space organizations worldwide, CNSA is not involved with ISS. In fact, it has its own small space station named Tiangong. It travels in low Earth orbit between 330 and 450 kilometers above the ground, and has a mass between 95 and 100 tons, about 20% of the mass of the ISS.
CNSA has developed Long March rockets, a family of expendable launch system rockets, to put its satellites into orbits. So far, this Long March series has successfully conducted 350+ launches, including Earth-moon transfer orbit, geostationary transfer orbit, sun-synchronous orbit, and low-Earth orbit.
In 2003 (after several unmanned spacecraft tests), CNSA launched its first astronaut into orbit. While doing so, China became the third nation (after the USSR and the USA) to perform human spaceflight.
Since then, they have conducted many manned space missions. 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. To date, 16 Chinese astronauts have traveled in space.
As far as unmanned mission is concerned, CNSA has achieved numerous milestones. In 2014, for instance, the agency successfully made the first soft landing on the moon using its first robotic lunar lander and rover, named Chang’e 3.
It became the first space organization to land on the far side of the Moon and the second organization to land a rover on Mars.
It now encourages commercial space activities (such as space tourism) led by private corporations. Such initiatives could bring cost-efficient aerospace innovations.
1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
All Saturn V launches, 1967–1973 | Source: NASA
Annual Budget: $24 billion
For six decades, NASA has led peaceful space exploration, making discoveries about Earth, other planets, solar systems, galaxies, and our universe. Although this independent organization isn’t a part of any executive department, it 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, the Apollo Moon landing missions.
We all know about NASA’s Moon-landing missions and Mars exploration programs, but only a few have an 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, the solar system, and the universe.
- Space Technology for developing space exploration technologies and space science.
- Human Exploration and Operation deals with the management of manned space programs, including those to the ISS, launch-related missions, space communications, and transportation.
It has several affiliated research centers in different states, including the Johnson Space Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Langley Research Center. A total of about 17,950 people work for this agency, and many more are employed as government contractors.
To date, the agency has successfully launched 165+ manned flights and conducted numerous robotic and unmanned spaceflight programs. Over 1,000 robotic missions have been executed to explore our planet and the Solar System. More than 80 are currently active science 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.
NASA spends about $3 billion per annum to operate the ISS, which mainly serves as a microgravity and space environment research lab. It is also used for testing spacecraft instruments required for long-duration missions to Mars and Moon. The agency plans to continue the ISS program till 2030.