Editorial | Rendezvous at Mars

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The Sept. 24 capture of India’s first interplanetary spacecraft into Mars orbit marks another significant achievement for the rising space power.

The Mangalyaan probe, like India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter that flew in 2008, symbolizes the expanding frontiers and potential of a space program that grew up on down-to-Earth applications like resource mapping, weather monitoring and communications. The Indian Space Research Organisation, which developed Asia’s first successful Mars mission at an estimated cost of roughly $70 million, is to be congratulated.

Perhaps by coincidence, Mangalyaan’s arrival came just three days after that of the latest U.S. visitor to the red planet, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) probe.

The probes themselves are quite different. Mangalyaan is first and foremost a technology pathfinder with a secondary science mission, while MAVEN is 10 times more expensive and carries a sophisticated instrument package that will provide clues about the evolution of the martian atmosphere and climate.

But together they made space exploration history: Never before had two probes — let alone two launched by different countries — reached the same distant planetary destination at roughly the same time.

Even more significantly, their arrivals set the perfect stage for the signing, on Sept. 30, of accords to expand Indo-U.S. cooperation in space activity.

Unlike so many other space cooperative pacts, which tend to be vague and noncommittal, the accords signed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan during the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto are concrete and substantive. They call for NASA and ISRO to jointly conduct a radar Earth observation mission launching in 2020 and to examine opportunities to collaborate in Mars exploration, possibly beginning with coordinated observations MAVEN and Mangalyaan.

This is the latest and most significant product to date of an ongoing dialogue that goes beyond civil space cooperation. According to a U.S. State Department fact sheet, the U.S. and Indian governments also are working to coordinate their respective satellite navigation systems and will open up a dialogue on space situational awareness and space collision avoidance.

Substantive ties between the U.S. and Indian space programs have been a long time coming. Although there has been collaboration dating back to the early 1960s, the relationship has been hampered by larger geopolitical issues including India’s nuclear tests, most recently in 1998, India’s ties with the former Soviet Union and U.S. dealings with Pakistan.

China’s growing power, coupled with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, gave impetus to U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with India. In 2004 the two sides unveiled the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiative under which they pledged to pursue cooperation in civil space and other high-technology areas.

Tangible progress had been painstakingly slow, however. Until now.

Earth observation has long been an obvious area of cooperation between India and the United States. To cite just one example, ISRO’s repeating series of Indian Remote Sensing broad-area mapping and mineralogy satellites could host U.S. sensors, while the U.S. Landsat imaging satellites offer a similar opportunity for Indian instruments.

Given the challenges NASA has faced in securing funding for Landsat and other Earth observation missions, it should be aggressively exploring all opportunities to partner with other nations, including India.

Mars exploration represents a new possibility. Obviously the gap between U.S. and Indian capabilities is far greater in planetary exploration than in remote sensing, but some fundamental requirements — launch, for example — would seem to fall within ISRO’s proficiency zone.

In so many space activities — ranging from Earth observation to planetary exploration, to space surveillance and even human spaceflight — the United States and India have much to gain and little to lose in working more closely together.

The two have had their differences over the years — they still persist in the commercial space arena — but the latest accords are a big step in the right direction.