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Successful PSLV-C20/SARAL Mission: India’s French “Space” Connect

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 07, 2013

    On February 25, 2013 India successfully launched its PSLV-C20/SARAL mission and delivered a ‘packet’ of seven satellites in space. This was the 23rd mission of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), an indigenous rocket developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). And, this was the 22nd continuously successful mission of this rocket, which clearly demonstrates its “ruggedness”. In 2009 ISRO had demonstrated its ability to launch multiple satellites in a single mission when PSLV-C9 delivered 10 satellites in one shot. Now, with this launch, it has reconfirmed its multiple launch capability by putting various small satellites (the biggest satellite weighed 409 kg while the smallest is only 3 kg) in the desired orbits.

    PSLV is a unique rocket. In its standard configuration, it is capable of lifting approximately a 2 ton payload. In the ‘core-alone’ mode, it can deliver less than a one ton payload in a sun-synchronous polar orbit, and with some additional modifications in a geo-synchronous transfer orbit. The 25 February launch was a core alone mission; the combined weight of the seven satellites was 668.5 kg and the satellites were placed in orbit at an altitude amid 789 to 794 km above the earth’s radius. The key satellite in this mission is an Indo-French satellite while the other satellites are from Canada, Austria, Demark and the United Kingdom. For Austria this mission is of great significance because this is the first time an Austrian satellite has been put into space.

    The main payload of this mission is the 409-kg satellite SARAL (Satellite for Argos-3 and Altika). SARAL is meant to study the circulation of currents in the oceans and measure the sea surface heights for which it has an altimeter on board. This information is important to predict the development of weather in the short term and climate in the long term. SARAL has two independent payloads (developed by the French space agency CNES): Argos-3 for data collection and Altika meter for measuring the height of the sea surface. These payloads have been integrated into a satellite bus from India and the entire satellite was built in India.

    The data received from the SARAL would also be dovetailed into the French programme of operational oceanography development. The data collected would also be contributing to the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE), the first international operational oceanography experiment. SARAL would be one of the very few such ocean-centric satellites specifically developed for studying sea surface heights. It would be somewhat similar to ISRO’s Oceansat-2, a satellite launched in September 2009 to study surface winds and ocean surface strata. The inputs provided by Oceansat-2 assisted NASA in monitoring Hurricane ‘Sandy’ in October 2012.

    Other important payloads launched on the PSLV-C20 mission are the two Canadian satellites meant for the Canadian Space Surveillance System. One is a space telescope, a 74 kg NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Space Surveillance Satellite) dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids. This is the world’s first space telescope designed to detect and track near-Earth asteroids. This satellite would also monitor operating and dead satellites and space junk. The second satellite is Sapphire, a 148 kg bird designed to track other satellites and space debris, which will circle between 6,000 km and 40,000 km above earth. NEOSSat and Sapphire would provide a major contribution towards asteroid and space debris surveillance, benefiting the efforts on generating space situational awareness (SSA). Interestingly, the launch of PSLV-C20 was delayed by a few minutes because of a debris scare! The other four satellites (weighing between 14 to 3 kg) are mainly demonstrative satellites with key focus on astronomical observations.

    The significance of the PSLV-C20/SARAL mission could be examined at three different levels. First, this mission clearly demonstrates the growing confidence of Western nations on India’s ability to launch satellites in low/medium orbits. Secondly, although the details are not available about the commercial aspects of this launch, it is obvious that India is making steady progress towards expanding its customer base in the satellite launch market. Third, ‘space’ is emerging as a flagship agenda for enhancing Indo-French relations. The acme of this mission is the French connection.

    The highpoint of the India-France relationship in recent times has been the “mother of all defence deals”, the US$11 billion MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) deal for the purchase of 126 fighter jets going to the French company Rafale. The last mile negotiations of this deal have been reported as progressing smoothly. Another area which has attracted much media attention in the recent past is the civilian nuclear energy deal signed between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and the French nuclear group Areva in February 2009. Unfortunately, post the Fukushima nuclear disaster which changed local perceptions in India, this deal is not found making good progress. Both parties are presently holding extensive negotiations over risk aspects and civil nuclear liability. France is also assisting India develop six Scorpene submarines (P75) under a transfer of technology contract. Also, both nations have recently finalized after long-drawn negotiations the $ 6 billion surface-to-air missile Maitri joint development project.

    Naturally, with so many high-status projects in the making, the Indo-French collaboration in space may not have got the public attention it deserves. Hence, it is important to put in context the India-France space collaboration in the backdrop of their historical bonding as well as the strategic partnership defined in 1998. France has been collaborating with India in the space area since the 1960’s. In May 1964, France and India established a programme of continuing cooperation in space research of mutual interest for peaceful scientific purposes. Then India’s sounding rocket programme had a French element to it. India was provided with four Centaure rockets with payloads for vapour cloud experiments. India’s first communication satellite (Apple experimental satellite) was launched by the French space launch vehicle Ariane1 in 1981. Till date, 15 of ISRO’s satellites have been launched by Ariane rocket with the last being the GSAT-10 launched in September 2012. The Ariane 5 vehicle is scheduled to launch GSAT 7 and INSAT-3D in the second quarter of 2013.

    Just ten days before the PSLV-C20 takeoff, French President Francois Hollande was in India for a state visit and the proposed launch of the SARAL satellite was an important point of discussion. It was also highlighted in the official Joint Statement issued by Hollande and Prime Minister Manmohan Sing. The last two French presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, had also taken a personal interest in pushing forward space ties with India. During his 2010 India visit, Sarkozy had first visited ISRO headquarters in Bangalore even before visiting the Indian capital, thus clearly demonstrating his administration’s priorities. On October 12, 2011, India’s PSLV-C18 had successfully injected into orbit a 1000 kg weather observation Indo-French satellite called Megha-Tropiques (Megha means clouds in Sanskrit and Tropiques means tropics in French). Presently, this satellite is providing inputs with regard to solar radiation, humidity and temperature profiles, cloud features, precipitation patterns, etc.

    On February 5-6, 2013, India and France participated in a Science Seminar and Research and Technology Workshop held at Bangalore and have drawn-out ambitious follow-on space cooperation proposals for the future. Mention to this effect was made in the Joint Statement issued by India and France during Hollande’s State Visit.

    For almost the last 50 years, space collaboration has significantly remained intact between France and India. They have worked together on a range of issues from satellite applications, developing small satellites to earth system science and weather satellites. They are jointly researching on issues related to tropical weather prediction and climate change. Large numbers of bilateral agreements have been signed in the area of space technologies (and sciences) since the 1960s. Even during the era of sanctions that were imposed on India because of its nuclear policy, the French administration was found tactically navigating through the ‘muddled space’. On the commercial front, ISRO has been a valued customer for Arianespace for many years. Now, Ariane is expected to launch GSAT-7, a satellite dedicated for the Navy. This arrangement should not be viewed only as a commercial activity. It demonstrates India’s faith in the French administration in terms of depending on France for the launch of an Indian strategic system into space.

    Presently, India has a significant amount of dependence on Arianespace for the launch of heavy (3 to 5 ton) satellites into geostationary orbit. This is mainly because of India’s failure to successfully develop a cryogenic engine required for such launches. India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) programme was put on hold after it suffered two successive failures in April and December 2010. India is expected to resume flying the GSLV rocket in the next few months. India’s (expected) success with the GSLV programme would reduce its dependence on Arianespace.

    For all these years France has been the senior partner in bilateral space collaboration. This situation is expected to change partially in the next few years. Now as equal partners, it could be of interest for both states to join hands to attract the rapidly growing space launch market. These two successful economies from Europe and Asia could also use various facets of space technologies to build their scientific, commercial and strategic relationship.

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