IDSA COMMENT

The PSLV-C18 Mission and Indo-French Collaboration in Space

October 14, 2011

On October 12, 2011, India’s PSLV-C18 successfully injected four satellites in orbit. This was the 19th consecutive successful launch for the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) most reliable launch vehicle, namely the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). In this mission, the PSLV injected into orbit a 1000 kg weather observation Indo-French satellite called Megha-Tropiques and three small satellites, namely the SRMSat from SRM University, Chennai; Jugnu from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur; and Vesselsat-1 from Luxembourg.

This PSLV mission has given multiple successes for the country. First, it has opened a new chapter in India’s atmospheric research capabilities by positioning Megha-Tropiques in an orbit of 867 km. Second, Megha-Tropiques is India’s first major joint space project with France. Third, there is a global demand for the data generated by Megha-Tropiques and for the first time India is planning to make its data available globally free of cost, an Indian contribution to tackle the challenges of climate change. Fourth, it has provided a boost for aerospace research in Indian Universities.

Continuous and reliable weather observations are a must for the prognosis of various weather patterns. The data available on the equatorial region all across the globe has always been sparse. This is because at the equator the division of land and sea is found highly diverse. Since this region is mostly covered by the oceans, very few weather observatories exist. Hence, the generation of continuous coverage of meteorological data in time and space is not possible. Because of lack of weather observations, the understanding about the atmospheric physics of this region has remained limited. This in turn has impacted both short term and long term weather forecasting. Megha-Tropiques is expected to fill this void.

For India, which is predominantly governed by the tropical climate, such information is extremely important. Megha-Tropiques would provide inputs with regard to solar radiation, humidity and temperature profiles, water vapour profiles, cloud features, precipitation patterns, atmospheric motions, etc. Globally, the equatorial region is mostly covered by clouds which are convective in nature. A detailed analysis of such clouds is essential for cyclone and monsoon predictions. It is also important for analysing their role in energy and moisture budgets of the atmosphere. All such analyses would eventually play an important role in understanding the nature of climate change taking place over the region. Megha-Tropiques would also be networked with the Global Precipitation Constellation Mission (GPCM) being put up by the US and Japan jointly. Information on the weather and climate close to the equator has importance for states in Africa, Oceania and South America. Indian states in proximity to the equatorial region are also likely to benefit from this satellite.

Two other small ‘made by Indian students’ satellites launched during this mission also have a weather/climate function. SRMSat weighs just above 10 kgs and would help towards understanding issues related to global warming and pollution levels. The smallest satellite in the mission is the 3 kg Jugnu - a remote sensing satellite meant to monitor vegetation and water-bodies. It would also help in evaluating the GPS receiver for satellite navigation. The 28.7 kg VesselSat-1 from Luxembourg launched under a commercial agreement has been designed for locating ships cruising in the sea-lanes.

The Megha-Tropiques launch demonstrates the maturing of Indo-French collaboration. In the recent past, a boost to this collaboration, particularly in the arena of science and technology, was provided by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to India in 2010. During this visit, his official engagement began with a visit to ISRO at Bangalore and not with any political meetings at Delhi. He visited ISRO to demonstrate the importance of space collaboration in the bilateral relationship. ISRO has had a strategic alliance with EADS Astrium, the subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS SPACE), since 2005. This alliance was renewed for five more years during Sarkozy’s visit. It will allow both parties to develop a plan for the joint marketing of satellites globally. One more satellite called SARAL would be launched by both countries as a joint mission during 2011-12 by using the PSLV-C20 vehicle. This remote sensing satellite is meant for climate and ocean observation.

India’s technology collaboration with France covers a number of areas like solar thermal technology, systems and designs for automobiles, robotics and control systems, etc. However, aerospace technologies remain the central focus. In the space arena, for many years India has depended on France for the launch of heavy satellites from the latter’s Spaceport in French Guiana by using the launch vehicle Ariane.

The PSLV-C18 launch indicates the conception of a level playing field with regard to the Indo-French space partnership. In the past, India had sought help from various French agencies for the development of its space programme, but now both countries are working together as equal partners. They are also working towards developing joint commercial interests. The October 12 launch has re-established the ISRO’s proficiency in launching satellites in the one to two tonne category. Now, the time has come for both countries to develop a marketing strategy through which India could launch small and medium satellites and France can launch heavy satellites. They could also concentrate on the joint design and development of satellites for smaller developing countries.

The launch of Megha-Tropiques and the proposed launch of the SARAL satellite indicate the commitment of the two countries towards studies in atmospheric sciences. The data generated by such satellite systems would help generate a better understanding of issues related to climate change. Unfortunately, the current debate on climate change is trapped between the extreme positions taken by developed and developing states. It is important to make this debate more nuanced based on additional empirical evidence. Such joint designing and launching of satellites and subsequent data sharing would help to bring in added transparency in the understanding about the behaviour of the atmosphere. Around the equatorial belt important states like Brazil and Australia reside. The launch of Megha-Tropiques offers an opportunity for India to pursue “satellite diplomacy” with such countries.