ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said ESA and ISRO are looking to "intensify their cooperation" in several potential areas. Credit: ESA TV

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency, impressed with India’s growing space capabilities, is exploring opportunities for enhanced cooperation in space activities.

At a March 27 media briefing after a meeting of the ESA Council, Renato Krpoun, chair of the council, said that ESA members received a presentation during the meeting from S. Somanath, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Somanath “presented a very impressive vision of the future of the Indian space program,” Krpoun said.

Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, said later in the briefing that Somanath’s presentation provided an update on recent activities by ISRO. “It has opened our eyes, first of all, to what is happening in India,” he said.

He said that in late 2022, he discussed with Somanath how the two agencies could “intensify their cooperation on a number of domains” in space activities. “We agreed this is something that we should investigate further.”

That investigation has included a week-long visit by an ESA delegation to India to discuss options in science, exploration and operations. “At the moment we are in a fact-finding mission,” he said. He didn’t elaborate on specific cooperative missions or programs being considered or their schedules, other than that any plans that do advance and require funding from ESA member states would be included in the package of proposals for the next ministerial conference in late 2025.

“This is an ongoing exercise, but certainly the spirit is very positive,” he concluded. “There is an interest on both sides to intensify the cooperation, which already has been excellent, but to increase it and enlarge it a bit.”

There is cooperation between the two agencies today, although at a relatively low level. A July 2021 agreement gave ISRO access to ESA ground stations for some of its missions, like the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander and Aditya-L1 solar science spacecraft, in exchange for ESA access to ISRO tracking stations for some missions. ISRO has also cooperated directly with some ESA member states, notably France on a series of Earth science missions.

India is also increasing its cooperation with the United States in space. India joined the Artemis Accords in June 2023 and the governments of the two nations said at the time they would develop a “a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation” that could include flying an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station.

In progress developments

The ESA Council meeting also discussed several other topics, but with few new developments. ESA confirmed that the first launch of the Ariane 6 remains scheduled for between the middle of June and the end of July. Aschbacher said a more precise launch date should come in late April, after the completion of a qualification review.

ESA remains on track to make selections for a new commercial cargo program at the next Space Summit, scheduled for May 23 in Brussels. The agency expects to select up to three companies for “phase one” study contracts, with phase two awards to develop the spacecraft to come after funding is secured at the 2025 ministerial conference.

ESA is also closely watching NASA’s ongoing reassessment of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission architecture. ESA is a partner on MSR, providing the Earth Return Orbiter and a robotic arm to transfer samples from the Perseverance rover to the lander that will launch them into orbit. That reassessment, prompted by an independent review last fall that concluded MSR was significantly over budget and behind schedule, is expected to be published as soon as April.

“We are in constant dialogue with NASA” on MSR, Aschbacher said. “The dialogue is extremely good and positive and constructive; very transparent.”

“We are very committed to deliver our components on time and on schedule,” he added.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...