ISRO-NASA collaboration could check China on the border, Indian Ocean region

While the upcoming NISAR project, jointly developed by NASA and ISRO, would focus mainly on geological processes and climate change, it would also send raw data from the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@orfevents
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@orfevents

Dhairya Maheshwari

China’s dam-building spree on the Brahmaputra river and its growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) could be checked by increasing cooperation between American and Indian space agencies, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The two civilian space agencies are developing an earth monitoring satellite, NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar), which would be the first-ever radar imaging satellite to use dual frequency. The $950-million NISAR Project Agreement aims to launch a satellite in 2021.

“The routine cycle of the NISAR mission would be 12 days, so every 12 days you would be able to observe what is going on in the Himalayan region,” said Dr Alok K Chatterjee, the Mission Interface Manager and Launch System Engineer, NISAR Project. Dr Chatterjee was speaking at a panel discussion, India-US Space Cooperation, organised by New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) on Thursday.

“You can average it out and see what’s going on,” Dr Chatterjee, formerly an engineer at ISRO, added.

He, however, added that the mandate of the NISAR project was to observe the Earth’s geological processes and understand phenomena like the climate change.

“Exactly what Nisar is going to do is that it is going to give you a three-dimensional volume data. This data could be used to estimate the water content and flow and is being done by one of the laboratories, the Centre Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS),” explained another scientist present at the discussion.

Earlier this week, China agreed to resume sharing the hydrological data of Himalayan rivers with India, after it had stopped supplying New Delhi with the data in the wake of the 73-day standoff on the Doklam Plateau last year. India has expressed concern that construction of hydel power projects on the Brahmaputra in China could have adverse impacts on the lower riparian states such as itself and Bangladesh.

While both NASA and ISRO have so far confined themselves mainly to civilian cooperation, there is a push in both India and America to use the expertise of their space agencies in military matters due to changing geopolitics, shaped by the rise of China.

“The NASA is much more about space situational awareness. The maritime domain awareness is not part of NASA’s charter,” Lt. General Larry James, the deputy director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, said at the panel discussion.

A former US Air Force commando, James, however, stated that there was an ongoing discussion with the American government to move some important functions concerning space monitoring from the ambit of NASA to a civilian agency like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“It is pretty easy for the sensors we develop to see the way of ships from space,” James said, while answering a question on space cooperation between the countries of the Quad, namely India, the US, Japan and Australia, in the Indian Ocean.

Ambassador Rakesh Sood, India’s former envoy with experience in disarmament matters, said at the forum that cooperation between the Quad countries in the space domain would serve to address some of the more “assertive aspects” of the Chinese behaviour.

“I think that the objective (of the cooperation) is much more, to be able to ensure that collectively we are able to develop to certain norms, encourage other countries in the region to accept those norms so that, to an extent, we are able to address some of the more assertive aspects of Chinese behaviour as we have seen in recent years,” Sood said.

He, however, noted the limitations of the Japanese, Australian and Indian space programmes, when stacked up against that of America’s.

“We have to talk to each other and synergise our shared political objectives,” Sood added, noting that a defence agreement in space cooperation could take some time to reach due to different political backgrounds of both the US and India.

“It took at least ten years to conclude a logistics sharing agreement. India is unlike any other country that the US dealt with during the Cold War. We are neither an ally nor an adversary. We may be much smaller in terms of economic and technology but want to be treated as equal politically,” Sood explained.

Dr Chatterjee said that space agreement in defence would be a step in the right direction. The scientist said, “It is about time that Indian defence takes up programmes that are related to space assets, data processing in an emerging collaboration between the four countries. It can be a very effective tool to implement that sort of arrangement.”

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