Commentary | Space Cooperation: A Vital New Front for India-U.S. Relations

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Indian scientists preparing to launch their Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in November 2013 received an usual message — “lucky peanuts” from scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL scientists bring a jar of peanuts to mission countdown — a tradition that goes back to the 1960s, when NASA had multiple mission failures in its Ranger lunar probes. During the launch of Ranger 7, someone in mission control was eating peanuts and passing the container around. The mission finally was a success and the credit went to those peanuts. NASA was sharing its tradition with the Indian Space Research Organisation when it posted a message on ISRO’s MOM Facebook page saying, “Good luck peanuts from NASA to ISRO!” “Go MOM!” and “Dare Mighty Things.” 

The message showcases the recent elevated U.S. interest in India’s space program and the growing cooperation between the two space agencies. India’s earlier Moon mission, Chandrayaan-1, had two instruments from the United States: the Mini Synthetic Aperture Radar from the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, an imaging spectrometer from Brown University and JPL. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper sensor was used in determining the existence of water molecules on the lunar surface. 

India and the United States in recent years have also signed agreements and formed joint working groups to foster data sharing and expert collaboration. In 2012, for example, they signed implementing agreements for active collaborative on the U.S.-led Global Precipitation Measurement project and on the Megha-Tropiques and OceanSat-2 satellites. Both agreements committed the parties to active data sharing and cooperative development of algorithms to understand the data produced.

India’s Megha-Tropiques, a satellite mission to study the water cycle in the tropical region in the context of climate change, will now form part of the Global Precipitation Measurement mission being led by the U.S. and Japan. OceanSat-2 is an Indian remote sensing satellite launched in 2009. Under the cooperative agreement, OceanSat-2 was extensively utilized during Hurricane Sandy to determine ocean surface winds using its radio scatterometer. The image of Hurricane Sandy obtained by the scatterometer on Oct. 29, 2012, was transmitted to NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing the storm heading toward the U.S. East Coast. 

Most recently NASA and ISRO have agreed to collaborate and launch an L- and S-band synthetic aperture radar satellite. By gathering data in two wavelengths, researchers would 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. The two radars operating in L- and S-band are also meant to identify movement of Earth’s surface as small as a fraction of a centimeter, which could in turn help detect stress signals originating from earthquake fault lines and dormant volcanoes.

The 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. The joint mission would fulfill some of the key scientific objectives of NASA’s proposed Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) environmental satellite. 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. 

This joint project is a welcome addition to the constellation of satellites engaged in climate observation. According to the Global Climate Observation System, approximately 50 essential variables are necessary for the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and about 50 percent of these variables are determined through satellite systems. 

Given the budgetary constraints under which spacefaring nations like the United States and India operate, cooperation is a valuable means to furthering our understanding of Earth’s ecosystem. Both NASA and ISRO have made commitments to continue their cooperative engagement in space research.

 

Jaganath Sankaran is a postdoctoral scholar at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He wrote his doctoral thesis on space security at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.