Delhi is taking space cooperation with each of its Quad partners to new heights
by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
As the United States and India get closer, they appear to be taking their space cooperation to a higher orbit. India is also increasing its collaboration in space with the other two members of the Quad, Japan and Australia.
The joint statement from the third iteration of the India-U.S .2+2 strategic dialogue held in October 2020 included some consequential cooperation in space. The decision to start working together on issues such as space situational awareness (SSA) is important in ensuring safe, secure, and sustainable use of outer space. In 2019, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) set up its own SSA and management directorate at its headquarters in Bengaluru. In addition to the India-U.S. civil space dialogue, the four ministers who were part of the 2+2 dialogue agreed to also discuss potential areas of cooperation in space from a defence and security perspective. India and the United States are already engaged in a space security dialogue, which began in 2015. This was a first for India with another country.
In March this year, ISRO finished work on a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can capture high-resolution images of the Earth. According to an ISRO statement, on March 4, the S-band SAR payload was shipped from ISRO’s Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre (SAC) to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California for integration with the latter’s L-band SAR payload. In a recent interview, ISRO Chairman Dr. K. Sivan said that once the two radars are integrated and ready, NASA would send it back to India and “it will be entirely assembled as a satellite at the UR Rao Space Centre in Bangalore.”
The NASA-ISRO synthetic aperture radar (NISAR) project is tasked with a joint Earth observation mission “to make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes using advanced radar imaging.” This mission was born from a National Academy of Science 2007 survey apprising the priorities in the area of Earth observation for the decade. The survey prioritized gaining a better understanding of three Earth science domains including ecosystems, deformation of Earth’s crust, and cryospheric sciences. Following upon ISRO and NASA conversations on a possible joint radar mission, ISRO decided to join the project with its own complementary mission objectives including agricultural monitoring and characterization, and studies of landslides, Himalayan glaciers, soil moisture, coastal processes, coastal winds, and monitoring hazards.
According to a NASA press release from September 2014, NISAR will be the “first satellite mission to use two different radar frequencies (L-band and S-band) to measure changes in our planet’s surface less than a centimetre across.” NISAR will be capable of observing the Earth’s land- and ice-covered surfaces on a global scale with 12-day periodicity on ascending and descending passes, capable of sampling Earth on average every six days, with a baseline mission duration of three years. NASA noted that “over the course of multiple orbits, the radar images will allow users to track changes in croplands and hazard sites, as well as to monitor ongoing crises such as volcanic eruptions. The images will be detailed enough to show local changes and broad enough to measure regional trends.”
Under the project, NASA is responsible for providing the mission’s L-band synthetic aperture radar, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder, and payload data subsystem, and ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band radar, the launch vehicle and associated launch services. The mission is set for launch in late 2022 or early 2023 from ISRO’s Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh in southern India. India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-II) will be used for the mission. As for the cost, it is reported to be “the world’s most expensive imaging satellite.” ISRO is reportedly spending around 7.9 trillion Indian rupees ($110 million) and NASA around $808 million on this mission.
As India and the U.S. grow closer, engaging in a range of projects to study the space environment as well as the Earth, India is also pursuing a space agenda with the other two Quad partners. According to Indian media reports, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States have plans to establish several working groups focusing on climate change and emerging and critical technologies, including some focus on developing norms and standards for these technologies.
On March 11, Sivan, ISRO chairman, held a meeting with Dr. Hiroshi Yamakawa, the president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The ISRO press release said that the two sides reviewed their cooperation on Earth observation, lunar cooperation, and satellite navigation and agreed to explore their potential for cooperation on areas such as SSA. The two space agencies also signed an implementing arrangement for collaborative activities on rice crop area and air quality monitoring using satellite data.
Earlier, in February, Sivan held a meeting with his Australian counterpart, Enrico Palermo, the head of the Australian Space Agency. The two leaders signed an amendment of the “2012 India – Australia Inter-Governmental MoU for cooperation in Civil Space Science, Technology and Education” in the presence of the Indian High Commissioner to Australia and the Australian High Commissioner to India, making the Indian Department of Space and the Australian Space Agency the executive organizations for cooperation in this regard. The amendment also facilitates further exploration and identification of areas for bilateral space agenda. The two took the opportunity to review the status of their ongoing cooperation in the areas of Earth observation, satellite navigation, space situational awareness, and establishment of a transportable terminal in Australia to support India’s human space mission, Gaganyaan.
Clearly, as the political comfort level between India and the other Quad countries grows, it is likely to be reflected in a number of areas, including space cooperation.