By Jaganath Sankaran
Jaganath Sankaran is a postdoctoral research associate at the National Security Education Center at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Sankaran wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy on the topic of space security. Part of this opinion piece has been adapted from the author’s article titled: “Space Cooperation: A Vital New Front for India-U.S. Relations” published in Space News. The opinions expressed in the article are solely the author’s do not represent the positions of any organization.
Sankaran spoke at a SAI seminar last February: China-India Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?
India’s Mars probe, Mangalyaan, was successfully placed on an orbit around the red planet on the 24th of September, 2014. The event has sparked an outpouring of nationalistic pride in India in response to the scientific achievement. The positive reaction is richly deserved by India’s Space Research Organization. Placing a research satellite around Mars is, indeed, a difficult task.
A number of missions by other advanced scientific nations have failed in the past. In 1998, for example, Japan failed to place its Nozomi spacecraft on a Mars Orbit due to a malfunctioning valve that led to propellant leakage. More recently, in 2011, Russian Phobos-Grunt and Chinese Mars orbiter Yinghuo-1 failed due to problems with the launch vehicle. Since 1998, the U.S. has attempted ten missions to Mars of which three failed. Similarly, since 1998, the European Space Agency has managed to place only one of its Mars orbiters out of two attempts.
All of this data points to the significance of the India’s achievement. A number of things could have gone wrong in a Martian mission. India’s Space Research Organization—to its credit—managed to anticipate and avoid such pitfalls in its first Mars mission.
What is next on the agenda for India? India has a number of space exploration missions lined up for the future. One is a follow on to its first Moon mission, Chandrayaan-II. There is apparently also plans to launch a spacecraft—Aditya-I—to study solar coronal mass ejections.
Important as these scientific space explorations missions may be, however, India’s major initiatives in space continue to be focused on earth missions that have more immediate applications. Specifically, some of these missions will be undertaken in cooperation with the United States. In 2012, India and the U.S. signed implementing agreements for active collaborative on the U.S.-led Global Precipitation Measurement project. India’s Megha-Tropiques, a satellite mission to study the water cycle in the tropical region in the context of climate change, forms part of the Global Precipitation Measurement mission being led by the U.S. and Japan.
More recently, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Indian Space Research Organization have agreed to collaborate and plan to launch an L- and S-band synthetic aperture radar satellite for weather-related research. By gathering data in two wavelengths, researchers hope to be able to more accurately observe and classify varieties in vegetation, measure changes in the amount of carbon stored in vegetation, and observe changes in soil moisture.
This joint mission is part of a NASA plan to launch a series of water and drought monitoring satellites over the next several years designed to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems, and to better visualize the changes occurring on Earth. This joint mission is expected to fulfill some of the key scientific objectives of NASA’s proposed Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) mission.
The U.S. National Research Council in 2007 identified DESDynI as a top Earth Science priority, but budget pressures have confined the mission to the drawing board. Working together, India and the U.S. will be able to obtain data on some of the DESDynI objectives.
Such joint ventures, given national budgetary constraints under which spacefaring nations like the United States and India operate, is an effective means to further the understanding of Earth’s ecosystem. Such ventures also strengthen relationships between the two countries.