Will the Indo-French Collaboration on Space Research Lead to a Lander on Mars?

India and France's collaboration on space research has been symbiotic from the very outset and now spans across Europe, Asia and South America.

The GSLV-MkII emerges from the vehicle assembly building at Sriharikota. Credit: ISRO

The GSLV-MkII emerges from the vehicle assembly building at Sriharikota. Credit: ISRO

Kourou:  The Indo-French love affair for rockets spans across Europe, Asia and South America. In far-away French Guiana, at Kourou in South America, housed in the middle of lush green rain forests, is the expansive 700 sq km European space port.

When I reach, I encounter a heartening sight that fills one with national pride as I see the tricolour hoisted alongside the French and EU flags.

Another fact makes me feel at home, is a poster announcing that I am in a zone that houses deadly diseases like dengue and chikungunya to add to the icing it also warns against Zika.

It is here that I find a band of about a dozen Indian aerospace scientists who made a motel their temporary home and were carefully nurturing India’s big bird, the GSAT-18 satellite that was launched on the Ariane-5 rocket last week.

Cooking their own meals of rasam and curd rice, this merry gang kept a vigil on India’s satellite as it rocketed over the Atlantic Ocean.

There is no other country, other than France which has contributed and benefitted the most in partnering with India in the space sector. From helping India in its very first baby rocket launch, way back in 1963 to having launched India’s latest heavy weight communication satellite GSAT-18 on October 6, 2016, the Indo-French connection are deep and strong.

India and France have made rocket engines together, helped each other learn things that were being denied to one another, have made satellites for each other and more than that both have helped train human resources in this frontier area. Today both countries are recognised as frontline space powers each in their own right.

Not known to many, India even contributed to the making and testing of the mighty Ariane rockets. On the 280th launch of rockets from Kourou and the 74th consecutively successful launch of the massive Ariane-5 rocket, India’s GSAT-18 – a 3404-kg communications satellite that helps the country boost its television and banking services was successfully placed in orbit.

ISRO chairman, A. S. Kiran Kumar, who watched the launch from the Jupiter building of the control centre in Kourou, called it a “glorious and flawless mission and like, on all previous occasions, Arianespace provided a magnificent textbook launch”.

India has had a long association since 1983 with Arianespace and Centre National Detudes Spatiales (CNES) or the French space agency, as Kumar says “This was the 20th launch for ISRO and we have been having a long cooperation with Ariane starting with our Ariane Passenger Payload Experiment (APPLE). At ISRO we have capability of putting only 2.2 tonnes in orbit and we come to Kourou and Ariane for putting higher capacity satellites.”

This 20th launch was only the latest, in early years when the Ariane rocket was still struggling and had suffered back to back failures, it was India that risked putting its APPLE satellite – a 350-kg communications satellite onboard the third launch of the Ariane-1 rocket in 1983.

To be fair, CNES provided India with a free launch and since then the gates for commerce in rocket launching using the Ariane family of rockets have not closed. In 2017, India hopes to launch another two heavy duty communication satellites GSAT-17 and GSAT-11 using the trusted Ariane-5 rocket.

In 1963, when ISRO was not yet born, India launched its first sounding rocket from Thumba, a Nike Apache rocket given by the Americans, but even in this first launch the French link was evident as the payload of the sodium vapour experiment was provided by France.

Legendary French aerospace scientist, Jacques Blamont, was present on November 21, 1963 in the fishing village of Thumba, in Kerala who says he “had no difficulty convincing CNES to provide a radar for tracking and the sodium payloads to be placed first on the first sounding rocket”.

Blamont recalls that “a young engineer was sent the night before to fit the payload and nose cone, he later became the president of India in A. P. J. Abdul Kalam”.

One of ISRO’s workhorse liquid fuelled rocket engines is the Vikas motor, that still flies on both the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), also has its origins in France.

According to Blamont, “For India, the really major breakthrough in liquid propulsion systems came in 1974 when ISRO signed an agreement with the Societe Europeenne de Propulsion (SEP) located in Vernon, France.

“At that time the French were developing the Viking liquid engine for their Ariane launch vehicle programme. Without any exchange of funds, this agreement provided for technology transfer from SEP to ISRO for the Viking liquid engine. In return, ISRO would spare the services of 100 man-years of ISRO engineers and scientists to SEP for their Ariane launch vehicle development. Forty engineers, with a 5 years contract, participated in the technology acquisition programme in France.”

This is the real beginning of the success story of the Indian and French rockets.

In more recent times, India has launched some of Europe’s sharpest eyes in the skies in the form of Spot-6 and Spot-7 satellites a few years ago.

That the French relied on India’s highly reliable PSLV launcher shows how the two countries trust each-others’ capabilities.

In more recent times, the two jointly made a satellite dedicated to study the water cycle on Earth called Megha Tropiques.

This is a 1,000-kg earth imaging satellite and was launched using the PSLV in 2011. Just last week ISRO and CNES inked a new understanding to jointly continue with the mission for another four years.

According to Mathieu Weiss, the CNES representative in India, “the mission has already given rise to some 90 published scientific articles and more than 1,400 citations.”

Weiss adds that the mission is delivering a dynamic three-dimensional picture of different states of water in the atmosphere. The main feature of the satellite is the combination of its instruments and its position over the inter-tropical belt, in a low-inclination orbit enabling up to five revisits to the same location every day.

This unique capability has allowed it to achieve remarkable progress in estimating rainfall and forecasting cyclones, monsoons and droughts. Continuous monitoring of the turbulent giant tropical convection spots, where most extreme weather phenomena form, provides a better understanding of the cycles affecting mid-latitude countries and is extremely valuable for the global climate science community.

Forging a new partnership, CNES and ISRO have decided to engage in new joint climate missions. The French Argos data-collection instrument will fly on the Indian Oceansat-3 satellite in 2018. France and India have also begun development of a future joint thermal infrared observation satellite.

“India is one of the best partners and customers for France,” says CNES president, Jean-Yves Le Gall who adds in times to come ISRO and CNES can hopefully jointly explore planets like Venus and Mars where India is already planning missions.

Blamont wants India and France to jointly launch an orbiter to Venus that will then send balloons down into the little understood atmosphere of the Venus.

“After India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, the next step has to be a lander. A lander on Mars is not easy, but it will be interesting to undertake,” says Le Gall.

Earlier this year on India’s republic day, at the summit meeting between India and France a letter of intent was indeed inked to explore landing on Mars.

In space technology no frontier is impossible and no dream is too big for India and France as they soar ever higher to decipher the unknowns of the universe, while not forgetting the needs of earthlings.

This article was originally published in the Economic Times

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