Editorial: Score One for International Collaboration

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Amid the flurry of bad news surrounding one international space project in particular, it was heartening to see the successful launch of the French-Indian Megha-Tropiques Earth observation satellite, a mission that had to overcome challenges of its own.

The satellite, along with three microsatellites, was launched Oct. 12 by an Indian rocket into an orbit that, in what French officials described as a first, won’t even take it over French territory. What the satellite will do is provide frequent coverage of the world’s tropical regions, studying monsoons and related phenomena, and pick up from another successful but aging international satellite, the U.S.-Japanese Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission launched in 1997.

The launch comes on the heels of more turmoil in the European-U.S. ExoMars program, where NASA recently informed its European Space Agency (ESA) partners that due to budget constraints it would be unable to provide an Atlas 5 launch for a Mars data relay orbiter targeted for a 2016 liftoff. That news came after NASA told ESA earlier in the year it would not be able to supply its own rover for a 2018 Mars mission, meaning the agencies must now design a jointly built vehicle for that launch opportunity.

ESA, in the meantime, has approached Russia seeking a Proton launch for the 2016 orbiter — which would transmit data from the 2018 rover back to Earth — in exchange for full participation in the ExoMars mission. Hopefully, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, will be able to oblige; the alternative is scrapping the orbiter altogether, which would waste considerable ESA effort while not saving it any money.

ExoMars is the latest example of what can go wrong on international collaborative missions, particularly when the prospective partners are forced to confront radical changes in budget outlook. Megha-Tropiques demonstrates that such challenges can be overcome with perseverance and creativity.

Development of the rainfall-monitoring satellite began in earnest in 2001 but was halted in 2002 due to budgetary problems at the French space agency, CNES. But CNES and the Indian Space Research Organisation were able to get things moving again by redesigning the mission, giving India a greater role, including provision of the satellite platform. Previously France had been assigned that role.

CNES wound up spending about $61 million on Megha-Tropiques, not including personnel costs, a sum that covered the provision of two of the satellite’s four main instruments and a contribution to a third. For its investment, CNES will share with its partner a treasure trove of data that is expected to support both research and operational weather forecasting.

Unfortunately, Megha-Tropiques also underscores a longstanding problem with civilian Earth observing satellites that has nothing to do with international collaboration: Governments, at least in Europe and the United States, have yet to come up with a reliable process for transitioning research measurements to operational — in other words, permanent — status. NASA and CNES have managed to build multiple Jason-series ocean altimetry satellites, but not without uncertainty and unnecessary drama as the agencies struggle to justify funding an operational mission given their research and development charters.

With Megha-Tropiques having just reached orbit, carrying five years’ worth of fuel but funded for only three years of operation, India and France have precious little time to devise a follow-up strategy. Discussions now taking place with other prospective partners, such as Brazil, are encouraging, but at the same time India and France must work to secure funding for two additional years of operation.

However little time there is for resting on laurels, France and India can take pride right now in their accomplishment, not only for the contributions Megha-Tropiques will make to climate science and weather forecasting but also for overcoming adversity. In this case, they managed to turn one of the notorious complicating factors of international collaboration into an asset. The importance of Megha-Tropiques as a collaborative success cannot be overstated at a time when even the wealthiest of nations are finding it increasingly difficult to fund scientific missions on their own.