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PSLV launch
An Indian PSLV lifting off last month, carrying an Indo-French satellite among several other payloads. The mission is the latest evidence of the long-running cooperation between the two nations in space. (credit: ISRO)

India’s French Connection in space

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On February 25, 2013, India successfully launched its PSLV-C20/SARAL mission, delivering a “packet” of seven satellites into Earth orbit. This was the 23rd mission of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), an indigenously developed rocket by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). This was also the 22nd continuous successful mission of this rocket, clearly demonstrating the performance of this launcher. In 2009, ISRO demonstrated its ability to launch multiple satellites in single mission when the PSLV-C9 launcher delivered ten satellites in one shot. Now, with this launch it has reconfirmed its multiple launch capability by putting various small-satellites (the biggest satellite weighing 409 kilograms while the smallest one is only 3 kilograms) in the desired orbits.

Space is emerging as a flagship for enhancing Indo-French relations.

PSLV is a unique rocket which, in its standard configuration, is capable of lifting an approximately two-ton payload, while in the “core-alone” mode can deliver less than one ton, into sun-synchronous polar orbit. With some additional modifications, the PSLV can also launch satellites to geosynchronous transfer orbit. For the latest “core-alone” mission, the combined weight of the seven satellites was 668.5 kilograms, and the satellites were placed in orbit at altitudes of 789 to 794 kilometers. The key satellite in this mission is an Indo-French satellite, while the other satellites are from various other nations, including Canada, Austria, Demark, and the UK. For Austria, this mission was of great significance because it marked the first time an Austrian satellite has been put into orbit.

The main payload of this mission was a 409-kilogram satellite named SARAL (Satellite for Argos-3 and Altika). SARAL is meant to study the circulation of ocean currents in and measure sea surface heights. This information is important to predict the development of weather in the short term and climate in the long term. This satellite has two independent payloads developed by French space agency CNES: Argos-3 for data collection and the Altika altimeter for measuring the height of the sea surface. These payloads were integrated into a satellite bus from India, where the satellite was also assembled.

The data received from the SARAL would also be incorporated into the French program of operational oceanography development. The data collected will contribute to the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE), first international operational oceanography experiment. SARAL will be one of the very few such ocean-centric satellites specifically developed for studying sea surface heights. It would be somewhat similar to ISRO’s Oceansat-2, a satellite launched during September 2009 to study surface winds and ocean surface strata. The inputs provided by this satellite assisted NASA for monitoring the Hurricane Sandy last October.

The significance of the PSLV-C20/SARAL mission could be examined at three different levels. First, this mission clearly demonstrates the growing confidence of European and other Western nations in India’s ability to launch satellites into low and medium Earth orbits. Second, although the details are not available about the commercial aspects of this launch, it’s obvious that India is making a steady progress towards expanding its customer base in the satellite launch market. Third, and perhaps most importantly, space is emerging as a flagship for enhancing Indo-French relations.

With so many high-status projects in progress, the Indo-French collaboration in space may not have got the public attention it deserves.

The highpoint of the Indo-France relationship in recent times has been the “mother of all defense deals”, the US$11 billion MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) deal for the purchase of 126 fighter jets going to the French company Rafale. The last-mile negotiations of this deal have been reportedly progressing smoothly. Another area which has attracted much of media attention in the recent past, is the civilian nuclear energy deal signed between the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and French nuclear group Areva in February 2009. Unfortunately, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which changed local perceptions of nuclear power in India, this deal is not making good process. Both parties are presently holding extensive negotiations over risk aspects and civil nuclear liability. France is also assisting India to develop six Scorpene submarines (P75) under transfer of technology contract, and both nations have recently finalized, after long negotiations, a US$6 billion surface-to-air missile Maitri—a joint development project.

Naturally, with so many high-status projects in progress, the Indo-French collaboration in space may not have got the public attention it deserves. Hence, it is important to put in context the India-France space collaboration given their historical bonding as well as their strategic partnership defined in 1998. France has been collaborating with India in the space area since 1960s. In May 1964, France and India established a program of continuing cooperation in space research of mutual interest for peaceful scientific purposes. At the time, India’s sounding rockets program had a French element to it. India was provided with four Centaure rockets with payloads for vapor cloud experiments. India’s first communication satellite (the Apple experimental satellite) was launched by an Ariane 1 in 1981. Through today, 15 of ISRO’s satellites have been launched by Ariane rockets, with the latest being the GSAT-10 launched in September 2012. An Ariane 5 is scheduled to launch GSAT 7 and INSAT-3D in the second quarter of 2013.

Just ten days before the PSLV-C20 launch, French president Francois Hollande was in India for a state visit, and the proposed launch of the SARAL satellite was an important point of discussion. It was also highlighted in the official joint statement issued by him and India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh. The last two French presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, had also taken personal interest in pushing space ties with India. During his 2010 India visit, Sarkozy visited the ISRO headquarters at Bangalore even before visiting the capital of New Delhi, clearly demonstrating his administration’s priorities. On October 12, 2011, India’s PSLV-C18 successfully injected into orbit a 1000-kilogram Indo-French weather observation satellite called Megha-Tropiques (Megha means clouds in Sanskrit and Tropiques means tropics in French). Presently, this satellite is providing inputs with regard to solar radiation, humidity and temperature profiles, cloud features, and precipitation patterns.

On February 5–6, 2013, both India and France participated in the Science Seminar and Research and Technology Workshop held at Bangalore, and have developed ambitious follow-on space cooperation proposals. Those plans were included in the Joint Statement issued by India and France during the State Visit of President of France to India, February 14, 2013.

For all these years, France has been the senior partner in this bilateral space collaboration. But as equal partners, it could be of interest for both nations to join hands together to attract business in the space launch market.

Space collaboration has endured for nearly 50 years between France and India. They are working together on range of issues from satellite applications and developing small satellites to earth system science and weather satellites. They are jointly researching on issues related to tropical weather prediction and climate change. A large number of bilateral agreements between both the states have been signed in the area of space technology and science since the 1960s. Even during the era of sanctions that were imposed on India because of its nuclear policies, the French administration was found tactically navigating through what could be considered a “muddled space.” On the commercial front, ISRO has been a valued customer for Arianespace for many years. Now, they are expected to launch GSAT-7, a satellite dedicated for the Navy. This arrangement should not be viewed only as a commercial activity but also one that demonstrates India’s faith in the French administration, where they are depending on them for the launch of a strategic system into space.

Presently, India has significant amount of dependence on Arianespace for the launch of heavy (three- to five-ton) satellites into geostationary orbit. This is mainly because of India’s failure to successfully develop a cryogenic engine required for such launches. India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) program was put on hold after it had suffered two successive failures in April and December 2010. Now, India is expected to resume flying the GSLV rocket in the next few months. India’s success with its GSLV program would reduce its dependence on Arianespace. For all these years, France has been the senior partner in this bilateral space collaboration. This situation is expected to change (at least partially) in the next few years. Now, as equal partners, it could be of interest for both nations to join hands together to attract business in the space launch market. These two successful economies from Europe and Asia could use various facets of space technologies to build their scientific, commercial. and strategic relationship.