CNES supplying cameras to Indian X Prize team, talks reusability with ISRO

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WASHINGTON — The French space agency, CNES, will supply two spacecraft cameras to a team from India competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, and has formed a working group with the Indian Space Research Organization to study reusable launch technology.

CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall, visiting Bangalore, India, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the agreements in a Jan. 9 statement.

The French space agency signed a letter of intent last June to contribute Color CMOS Camera for Space Exploration, (CASPEX) cameras to Axiom Research Labs, a Bangalore-based startup leading X Prize contender TeamIndus. During Le Gall’s recent trip to India, CNES specified the provision of two CASPEX cameras for TeamIndus’ rover.

CNES described Bangalore as “establishing itself after California as one of the most promising nerve centres of NewSpace.”

“To stay competitive, we need to combine the best innovations and that is the goal of CNES’s partnership with Indian space players,” Le Gall said in the press release.

Teams vying for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize grand prize must be the first to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface, travel a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit video and other data back to Earth. Team Indus has a contract with ISRO for a launch aboard a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV); Japan-based Hakuto is hitching a ride for its rover on the TeamIndus lander as well.

Although India has its rockets for launching polar-orbiting and geosynchronous satellites, ISRO continues to rely regularly on Evry, France-based Arianespace to orbit Indian satellites. The October launch of GSAT-18 on an Ariane 5 marked the 20th ISRO satellite to launch with the European provider, of which CNES had a 35 percent stake until November when Airbus Safran Launchers purchased its shares.

CNES has now agreed to form a working group on space launcher technologies with ISRO, and to train Indian engineers at its facilities. A technical working group is responsible for gauging synergies between French and Indian rocketry and studying future concepts “especially in the domain of reusable launch vehicles,” according to the press release.

Europe’s future launchers, the Ariane 6 and Vega C, are both expendable rockets, but reusable launch vehicles remain a field of study. In June Airbus Defence and Space unveiled Adeline — short for Advanced Expendable Launcher with Innovative engine Economy — a project that proposes returning the most expensive parts of an Ariane first stage by deploying wings and landing on a runway. French aerospace research agency ONERA also kicked off a three-year research program with six other European partner countries on a semi-reusable vehicle called the Air Launch space Transportation using an Automated aircraft and an Innovative Rocket (ALTAIR), meant for small satellites between 50 and 150 kilograms. ALTAIR would target low Earth orbit missions between 400 and 1,000 kilometers.

In June, ISRO flew an experimental winged spacecraft called the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator on an HS9 booster, meant to lead the way to a fully reusable two-stage vehicle. The agency’s flagship rocket, the PSLV, is expendable.