Turkey’s ambition to become a space power
In February 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled the ten-year National Space Program of Turkey (Milli Uzay Programi) and officially launched the Turkish Space Agency (TUA), thereby revealing Turkey’s ambition to become a space power.
So far, Turkey’s space footprint had been rather modest, in contrast with its military presence. That’s crystal clear for the head of the new Agency, Serdar Hüseyin Yıldırım, who considers that becoming a space power is a necessary preliminary step to achieve Ankara’s ambition to become a global power: “We need to be in space. We are doomed to be poor if we do not go into space”.
The space sector, and especially satellite communication, is all the more important for the country as satellites significantly increase UAVs’ range and Turkey particularly relies on its UAVs such as Anka, Aksungur, Akinci and Bayraktar TB2 to assert its military might.
In July 2020, Turkish information technology company CTech delivered the first Bayraktar TB2 equipped with a Satellite Communication (SATCOM) System that allows to transfer data with speed exceeding 20 Mbps to and from the ground control station.
The TUA, under the authority of the President of the Republic of Turkey, aims to coordinate and support space-related research at National level, and if necessary, help carry out regulation, supervision and certification of the work. According to Huseyin Yildirim, the agency’s budget would reach around $50 million annually, with the Turkish government providing $5.46 million and other institutions within the country providing the rest. This amount does not seem to be in line with Turkey’s space ambitions and raises the question of the role of potential private ventures. But if private investors were to complete the annual envelope, it would be interesting to determine whether they are Turkish nationals or not.
During his speech, President Erdogan explained that the first goal is to land on the moon by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, while the second goal is to create “a global brand that will compete in the development of next-generation satellites”. He added that the Turkish lunar program would be run in two stages. The first step will be to achieve one hard landing on the Moon using a domestic carrier rocket, which will be launched into orbit at the end of 2023 as part of an international cooperation. The second step, scheduled for 2028, will allow Turkey to launch a domestically built probe into the Moon’s orbit, which this time will perform a soft landing. President Erdogan added that Turkey also plans to build a spaceport while developing autonomous access to space. However, this plan would “cost upwards of $1bn”, a Turkish source familiar with the government’s plan told specialized media Middle East Eye.
ROKETSAN Uzay Sistemleri Müdürü Dr.Mehmet Ali Ak : "Mikro Uydu Fırlatma Aracı (MUFA), 2026 da ilk fırlatmasını gerçekleştirmeyi planlıyor.— Oğuzhan Uygun (@ogzhn_uyg) March 9, 2022
ROKETSAN, 2026 yılından itibaren uyduları ve uzay araçlarını milli imkanlar ile 400 kilometrelik dairesel yörüngeye fırlatabilecek. pic.twitter.com/1sy0w9Nhy1
ROKETSAN Space Systems Manager Dr. Mehmet Ali Ak: "The Micro Satellite Launch Vehicle (MUFA) plans to make its first launch in 2026. Starting from 2026, ROKETSAN will be able to launch satellites and spacecraft into a 400-kilometer circular orbit with national capabilities.”
In April 2021, two months after unveiling its 10-year-space programme, TUA successfully conducted a static test fire of SORS (“Probe Rocket System”), a sounding rocket equipped with the ‘Körtem’ hybrid rocket engine (i.e. using liquid oxygen and solid paraffin). Providing 22kN of thrust, it was developed by DeltaV Space Technologies Inc. (“DeltaV”), a company created by the Defense Industry Directorate (SSB) in 2017, and which is currently building a series of small launchers (GOSOR, TESOR, and now SORS) which have already been test fired several times. As part of the HURM project, a version of SORS equipped with a 2nd stage using the Ükrom engine is being developed for sending probes to the Moon.
For its part, Roketsan, a major Turkish contractor, is developing an orbital rocket within the Micro Satellite Launch Project (MSLS or MUFA), with the aim to launch a 100kg satellite in LEO by 2025. The company also launched several test rockets of the “TP” and “SR” series since 2018. However, as the head of TUA explained, Turkey is perfectly aware it will first need international partners. “As a first step, we want to enter outer space in 2023. But we do not have that capacity for 2023 or 2025” Serdar Hüseyin Yıldırım said. Thus, Ankara has multiplied agreements and discussions to strengthen its collaboration on space issues with other nations. Turkey Space Agency would be in talks with about 20 countries on space cooperation, including the United States, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, Japan, China, Pakistan, India and Azerbaijan.
Multiplying alliances for less dependence
In the past, Turkey has worked on space issues with countries like South Korea and Italy (notably on Turkey’s first spy satellite Göktürk-1, with a reported resolution of 0.8m, build by Thales Alenia Space, Telespazio and Aselsan, and launched in 2016), but for financial and political reasons, new partners are now required.
In 2019, in the midst of the F-35 crisis due to Ankara’s decision to purchase Russia S-400 missile system, Russia approached Turkey for a possible space partnership and seemed to be the most natural partner. At the Moscow International Aerospace Salon (MAKS) in August 2019, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, had proposed to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to train Turkish astronauts. At that time, Dmitry Rogozin assumed that Turkey would likely want to send its first astronaut to the ISS with Russian assistance on the occasion of the centenary of the Republic of Turkey in 2023.
In February 2021, the head of the Turkish Space Agency told Russian news agency TASS that Ankara and Moscow have several opportunities in many fields of cooperation as regards the space sector. “We have been discussing the possibility of implementing individual space projects for quite a long time, and with the creation of the National Space Agency in Turkey, our dialogue is reaching a new level”, he said. Then, in April 2021, Roscosmos anounced that Turkey was about to sign an agreement with Russia on space cooperation. Finally, in November 2021, a delegation of Roscosmos and representatives of other space-related industries met with the Turkish Ministry of Industry & Technology and the Turkish Space Agency. But at the end of the day, all these statements and meetings actually reveal that discussions between Moscow and Ankara seem to stagnate…
Russia, which currently struggles to retain its technical and human resources in the aerospace sector and could even more in the future with the ongoing war in Ukraine, is indeed looking for partnerships; but Turkey is determined to multiply its partnerships to avoid any situation of dependence. Turkey has thus become closer to Ukraine, to the delight of the European Union and the United States. In October 2020, during an official visit to Turkey, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky signed a cooperation protocol with the Turkish National Defense Industry Agency that would provide for exchanges of equipment and technological know-how between the two countries. With its long experience in liquid engine and rocket design, Ukraine also agreed to transfer space technology know-how to the Turkish company Roketsan, the national champion for designing, developing and manufacturing of rockets and missiles.
In November 2020, Roketsan has opened its Satellite Launch, Space Systems and Advanced Technologies Research Center at Lalahan, Ankara. According to Serdar Hüseyin Yıldırım, the agreement with Ukraine will lead to a joint development as regards new technologies as well as the manufacture of satellites and space launchers.
Besides this cooperation, it should be recalled that the latest Turkish satellites were launched by U.S. launchers, not Russian ones. Indeed, in January and December 2021, Turkey's new telecommunication satellites, Turksat-5A and Turksat-5B, were both launched by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, United States. Likewise, in January 14th, 2022, Turkey's first mini satellite ‘Grizu-263A’ designed since 2016 by a team of engineering students from the Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University (BEU), has been successfully launched in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by a SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket where it is expected to stay for about 4 years and take picture of the planet.
As Turksat-5A, Turksat-5B was built by Airbus Defence & Space (ADS) with a significant contribution from Turkey’s domestic industry, including several sub-systems, the satellite ground station and all software to be used on-board the satellite. With a launch weight of 4.5 tons, Türksat-5B is currently Turkey’s highest payload capacity satellite, and aims to provide data transmission capacity of more than 55 Gbps in total. Previous observation satellites of the country, like RASAT in 2011 and Göktürk2 in 2012, were built by TÜBiTAK but with payloads from South Korea.
The Turksat-5 contract with ADS, which includes the provision of launch services and in-orbit delivery, is worth nearly $500 million. Two years before, in April 2019, U.K. Export Finance, an agency with a long-standing interest in supporting satellite projects, had signed a $325mn loan with Turkey to support the financing of Turksat-5A and 5B. Thus, while the total cost of these satellites remains unclear and Turkish publicity mainly focuses on the number jobs that the space sector will entail in the country, it is obvious that Ankara is unable, for the moment, to fully finance its projects on its own dime.
Following the launch of Turksat-5B, President Erdoğan thanked SpaceX for not bowing down to "the blackmail and pressure of the anti-Turkey lobbies,” showing its continued willingness to cultivate links with the U.S. to the detriment of Russia. Likewise, in January 14th, 2022, Turkey's first mini satellite Grizu-263A, designed since 2016 by a team of engineering students from the Zonguldak Bülent Ecevit University (BEU), was successfully launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where it is expected to stay for about 4 years and take pictures of the planet.
As part of its effort to diversify its partners in the space sector, Turkey signed Memorandum of Cooperation in space activities for peaceful purposes with Japan during the Dubai Airshow in October 2021. The agreement intends to foster collaboration on space technologies and applications, utilizing space environment, space science and space exploration.
Likewise, in September 2021, the UAE Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency Sarah Al Amiri has met with Turkey's ambassador to the Emirates to discuss the possibility of collaborating on space exploration and advanced technology.
Moreover, in February 2021, Turkish Minister of Industry and Technology Mustafa Varank stated that Turkey was ready to cooperate with Azerbaijan and Pakistan as regards space issues: “Our contracts with Azerbaijan and Pakistan in the field of space activities are ready, we have reached the stage of signing”.
Pakistan Uzay ve Üst Araştırma Komisyonu (SUPARCO) ile uydu projeleri geliştirmek için iş birliğine imza attık.— Türk Havacılık ve Uzay Sanayii (@TUSAS_TR) January 26, 2022
Anlaşma kapsamında elektrikli haberleşme uyduları ve diğer uzay projelerine yönelik ortak çalışmalar gerçekleştireceğiz. İki ülke için hayırlı olmasını dileriz. pic.twitter.com/SClqB3oToA
“We cooperated with Pakistan Space and Upper Research Commission (SUPARCO) to develop satellite projects. Within the scope of the agreement, we will carry out joint studies on electric communication satellites and other space projects. We wish good luck for both countries.”
And just a few days ago, in a tweet, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) revealed that it will cooperate with Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) to develop satellite projects. “Within the scope of the agreement, we will carry out joint studies on electric communication satellites and other space projects. We wish good luck for both Pakistan’s National Engineering and Science Commission (NESCOM) to jointly produce Turkish Anka military drones, demonstrating obvious synergies between Turkey’s space and drone-based operations
Turkey’s space policy: a vehicle of influence in Africa
Commenting on the area Turksat 5B will cover, Turkish Deputy Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Ömer Fatih Sayan noted that in addition to Turkey, the satellite will cater to a large part of Africa and almost the entire Mediterranean. This comment, which could seem insignificant, reflects Turkey's yeaning to expand its influence in the Middle East and in Africa through its civil and military space policy.
As part of its national space program, Turkey plans to build a spaceport in the coming years. However, Turkey's geographical location is not suitable for the creation of a spaceport as it is surrounded by densely populated countries. In September 2018, Moscow claimed that Ankara could join the joint project between Russia and Kazakhstan to use the Baikonur spaceport.
But, in the meantime, media reported in February 2021 that Turkey plans to establish a spaceport in Somalia. Although Turkish authorities did not confirm this information, Serdar Huseyin Yildirim, the president of Turkish Space Agency, did not deny it, and only explained that it was a sensitive topic for which Turkey was in talks with the potential host country. Moreover, Somalia has the geographical advantage of touching the Equator, allowing rockets to have a greater initial speed when launched, thus saving costly fuel. Turkey’s tight connection with Somalia is nothing new, as the two countries are closely intertwined on economic, defense and political level. For years, Ankara has been closely working with the Somali Federal government, with “cooperation ranging from supporting infrastructural activities within Somalia to training local security forces” according to Turkish Foreign Affairs officials. For instance, since 2017, Somalia hosts TURKSOM, Turkey’s biggest military base overseas, to train Somali troops against the threat posed by al-Shabaab militants and to secure Turkey’s strategic interests in the region.
Interestingly enough, whilst the cooperation between Turkey and Russia regarding the space sector gropes its way, and the joint use of Baikonur spaceport seems unrealistic, Russia can offer another option to Turkey: the use of the Sea Launch floating platform, which is now totally owned by the Russian company S7 and can be easily relocated. Besides, on Jan. 23, Roscosmos said it plans to resume operation of the special Launchpad: “it makes sense to find a foreign partner who, by virtue of his geographic location cannot have a spaceport on its territory and would be interested in a partnership,” the agency said, adding that this will help “share the risks and financial burden at the first stage.”
In June 2021, on the sidelines of the Global Space Exploration Conference held in St. Petersburg, Serdar Huseyin Yildirim, explained that Ankara and Moscow could cooperate on the construction of Turkish spaceport: “We discussed the possibility of Russia providing assistance in the construction of our spaceport. They have a great deal of experience in this area, both in launch pads and spaceports themselves” he said.
At the same time, Somalia is of geostrategic interest to Russia. On the one hand, Somalia allows Moscow to gain influence in the Horn of Africa, where it intends to establish a sphere of influence. On the other hand, Mogadishu, with its prolonged instability, is in need of partners able to ensure its security. In 2016, Somalia’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke requested Russian assistance to strengthen the Somali military’s ability in the fight against Al-Shabaab.
Therefore, two questions are worth asking. First: do Moscow and Ankara plan to collaborate in the space sector to grow their respective influence in Africa, and how will this be affected by the situation in Ukraine, especially as Turkey is also cooperating with Ukraine? Second: will Turkey find the necessary financial resources to carry out its ambitious objectives?