United States, India Pledge Expanded Civil Space Ties

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WASHINGTON — The United States and India will expand cooperation in civil space as part of a broader initiative to promote stronger strategic, economic and security ties between the two countries, the White House announced Nov. 8.

The announcement came during U.S. President Barack Obama’s official state visit to India for talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first stop on the U.S. leader’s Asian tour.

As part of the deal, key centers of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), along with Indian defense research agencies, will be taken off the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List. Doing business with organizations on the Entity List requires a special license, and the inclusion of ISRO has long been a barrier to Indo-U.S. ties in space.

According to a fact sheet posted on the White House website, four ISRO centers will be removed from the Entity List: Liquid Propulsion Systems Center, Solid Propellant Space Booster Plant, Sriharikota Space Center and Vikram Sarabhai Space Center. Among the defense research organizations removed from the list is the Missile Research and Development Complex.

“The removal of these Indian entities from the Entity List is expected to facilitate trade and cooperation in civil space and defense to enable the two governments to focus on addressing other outstanding barriers that hinder expanded bilateral high technology trade,” the fact sheet states.

In addition, the United States will “realign” India in its export control regime for so-called dual-use items “to reflect India’s status as a strategic partner, effectively treating India similarly to other close allies and partners.”

In civil space, Obama and Singh agreed to build closer ties in exploration and Earth observation. India has long had a robust Earth observation satellite program and in 2008 launched its first planetary mission, the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which carried multiple NASA-supplied scientific instruments.

The two nations also will continue a dialogue on cooperation in human spaceflight. Although India has yet to send astronauts into space, it has designed and tested relevant capabilities including an orbit and re-entry capsule.

Possible cooperative projects in Earth observation include a “joint weather and climate forecasting project to predict the impacts of climate variability on agriculture,” validating data from India’s Oceansat-2 satellite and the upcoming Indo-French Megha-Tropiques precipitation measuring mission, and long-term cooperation in land imaging, the fact sheet states.

The two sides also will explore ways to preserve security in the sea, air and space domains, the fact sheet said.

The latest agreements follow a 2004 framework accord between the United States and India called Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, which emphasized three areas of cooperation: civil nuclear energy, civil space and high-technology trade. Removing ISRO from the Entity List was stated as a goal when that agreement was announced.

Despite India’s significant space capabilities, particularly in Earth observation, cooperation with the United States has been slow to materialize over the years, in part because of U.S. objections to India’s 1998 nuclear tests. But there has been a thawing trend in recent years.

In 2009, the United States and India signed a technical safeguards accord permitting U.S. civil-government payloads to launch aboard Indian rockets. For several years, the two sides have been negotiating an agreement that would permit U.S. commercial space hardware to launch aboard Indian rockets, but there was no mention of that deal in the latest White House announcement.