US joins India's space odysseyNEW DELHI - India's capabilities in space sciences have received a fresh fillip. The United States has shown keen interest in placing a payload aboard India's first spacecraft to the moon, Chandrayan-I.
Many believe that the US intention to place a payload on Chandrayan-I is a major area of engagement between the two countries. It is a reflection of the changed perceptions in Washington after years of suspicion about the Indian space entity's alleged involvement in transgressing stringent US laws to obtain dual-use high-technology items.
This had impeded cooperation during a time when India and the US were in opposite Cold War alignments. India considers its missile, space and nuclear programs to be closely interlinked, with nuclear deterrence against Pakistan and China and benefits to the people through satellite technology and nuclear energy being critical factors.
The government-controlled Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is leading the country's attempt to join the elite lunar club. ISRO has said the Indian lunar mission will not be an exercise in reinventing the wheel but will be a quantum jump. The mission is being viewed by ISRO as a stepping-stone to far more ambitious projects that will include landing a robot on the lunar surface and visits by Indian spacecraft to other planets of the solar system.
In an additional boost, ISRO has also announced that the country's first fully commercial satellite launch will take place around April or May when the Italian satellite Agile will be carried to outer space aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) C-8.
ISRO chairman G Madhavan Nair made the announcement. Nair said India's launch vehicles are cost-effective. "It will be a great opportunity for us if we can capture at least 10% in the launch business, which is worth [US]$2 billion in the international market," he said.
For India, which began its space journey in a modest way in 1963 with a launch of a nine-kilogram rocket from a research facility at the fishing hamlet of Thumba in southern state of Kerala, the Chandrayan-I marks a major leap. India's unmanned scientific mission to the moon that was approved in 2004 moved high on New Delhi's priority list in the wake of China's successful manned space mission of October 2003.
The scientific objectives of Chandrayan-I, which should zoom into space in 2007-08 at the head of the four-stage Indian-built PSLV, include preparation of a three-dimensional atlas of the regions on the moon and the chemical mapping of the entire lunar surface. India will then join the elite club of space-faring nations that have the wherewithal to undertake such complex and challenging space missions.
The $80 million Chandrayan-I project has elicited a positive response from Johns Hopkins University, and a miniature synthetic aperture radar instrument from the varsity's applied-physics lab is being set up in collaboration with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The mission will open a new chapter in Indo-US space ties, which started on a positive note back in the early 1960s when the US set up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station but subsequently fizzled out because of sanctions.
In the changed scenario of increased Indo-US cooperation that has extended to nuclear energy and defense, space has been identified as one key area of engagement in the joint statement between India and US in January 2004 that outlined the next steps in the strategic partnership.
Seven months later, at a high-profile conference of experts, diplomats and business representatives from both countries, a vision document was prepared that outlined the broad areas of collaboration, which included: Earth-observation science, technology and related applications; satellite communications technology and applications; satellite navigation and applications; Earth and space science; natural-hazards and disaster-management support; and education and training in space. A joint working group on space cooperation has been discussing the issue since.
ISRO is developing two categories of rocket. The PSLVs are designed for Earth observation and scientific missions, including remote-sensing satellites (such Cartosat-1 launched last year) and Chandrayan. The larger Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicles (GSLVs) deliver communications satellites into geostationary orbits 36,000 kilometers above the Earth where they can "hover' over the same place. The GSLV motors form the critical stages of operations of the long-range Agni missiles that are capable of delivering nuclear payloads.
India's Agni project, launched in the late 1980s, has been under the US microscope, with that country using every persuasive power, including sanctions, to delay it. The progress in missile technology has happened concomitantly with the strides in space research as the motors used in the launch vehicles of satellites have been incorporated into missiles.
Keeping India's interest in overcoming hurdles in procuring dual-use technologies by getting US export-control procedures simplified, the Indian parliament last year passed the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Bill, which the government has emphasized does not "in any manner constrict" India's nuclear program, either strategic or civilian. The nuclear bill is important in light of India's emergence as a nuclear state, and meets the country's commitments under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 passed in April 2004.
In the past decade, ISRO has launched eight PSLVs and three GSLVs without encountering any failure. Last May, Cartosat-1 became the 12th successful consecutive launch in 12 successive years. Cartosat-1 joined what is already the world's largest cluster of non-military remote-sensing satellites.
Six Indian spacecraft are already observing the Earth with a wide range of instruments. The INSAT series of satellites have given 90% of the population access to satellite television, with the most recent launch, Edusat, building a distant-learning network. The Indian launch vehicles are not yet powerful enough for the country's heaviest satellites, which have been launched on Europe's Ariane. But ISRO plans to become self-sufficient in this sector from 2008, when its GSLV-3 launcher is due to be ready for heavier satellites.
Many feel that the time is ripe for India to embark on a government-led campaign to win launch orders from other countries by putting competitive bids, especially to developing nations. As in several other fields, India can follow the lead taken by China, which has joined hands with Brazil and won an order in 2004 to build and launch a communications satellite for Nigeria. Russia, the US and Europe continue to lead the world in space launches, followed by China.
The launch of Agile will be a watershed. India may also launch Russian satellites for a global navigational system this year. As well, ISRO is slated to send an Indonesian micro-satellite into space this year. The target, as expounded by Nair, is to garner a 10% share of all commercial space launches in the world in the next five years.
More than three decades ago, Vikram Sarabhai, the architect of the Indian space program, outlined what he considered should be India's objectives in space. "We don't have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the moon or manned flights. But we are convinced that to play a meaningful role nationally and in the community of the nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problem of man and society which we find in our country."
India is on its way.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.