India, China set eyes on joint satellite constellation for BRICS
New Delhi: Space really knows no national boundaries, yet some of the most bitter earthly battles are fought on space issues. Amid this so-called star wars, some new green shoots of international collaboration can be seen to be emerging.
Most recently, possibly the short sightedness of Pakistan led it to opt out of the proposed SAARC Satellite, a friendly gift from India. From its ashes, it seems a new proposal to have satellite constellation on behalf of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) has emerged.
Meanwhile, 11 of the world's best-known and richest space agencies met last week in New Delhi and mooted the idea of a 'global space observatory' to monitor climate change. It seems some of the existential questions on the future of human kind can best be answered from the inky darkness of space.
Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of the French space agency (CNES) says, "the need of the hour is for the space agencies to pool their resources" to create a "virtual constellation of earth observing satellites" that will monitor global warming and climate change.
India lost its western neighbour Pakistan from the proposed SAARC Satellite but has now managed to gain China, the eastern giant in the proposed 'BRICS Constellation of satellites'.
The cat was let out of the bag by Wu YanHua, Deputy Administrator for the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) who was India this week to participate in a space summit hosted in New Delhi.
Wu said "we have been in dialogue with India on the BRICS Constellation for disaster risk reduction." Details of the proposed BRICS satellite constellation are still sketchy but Kiran Kumar, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) hinted that "a virtual remote sensing satellite constellation for the BRICS nations" was on the anvil.
It is interesting that the two regional space powers India and China who are as some observers believe locked in a 21st century Asian space race, are now hoping to join hands to combat the threat of climate change. Both India and China have cooperated extensively in trying to negotiate an amenable Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Now it seems the threat of a warming globe is getting the two space powers to warm up to each other.
Both China and India have end to end capabilities in space, yet China has a huge edge as it launched its first astronaut way back in 2003 and has heavier lift rockets in its arsenal. India was beaten to the moon orbit by China when it sent its Chang'e-1 satellite to the moon in 2007.
India did out pace China in reaching the orbit of Mars in 2014 with Mangalyaan.
Nevertheless, now the threat of climate change is making the two Asian giants, which among them house 2.5 billion people, to come together and collaborate.
It seems the first steps for a BRICS constellation was initiated at a meeting held in the Austrian capital Vienna earlier this year.
According to the CNSA, its deputy administrator participated in the meeting, which was held under the auspices of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and was attended by more than two dozen participants.
Sources from CNSA report that "at the meeting, the BRICS countries confirm their
willingness to participate in the construction of the virtual constellation."
The motivation from CNSA it seems is that "the successful implementation of remote sensing satellite constellation BRICS countries, will further enrich the content of cooperation BRICS countries to strengthen national cohesion". Most importantly the CNSA believes the BRICS Constellation would "enhance China's international voice and influence in the field of aerospace".
It is interesting that India space scientists who understand the deep capabilities of the Chinese have not rebuffed this proposal, since both neighbours have a lot to learn from each other. Both Indian and Chinese space programs are largely indigenously developed as homegrown efforts as both the neighbours have independently suffered under long drawn out technology denial and sanctions regimes especially from the US.
After having unsuccessfully scuttled the space programs of both India and China for long, now the US is trying to embrace the same international partners, hoping that the emerging giants would dole out resources as NASA's own budget stagnates and ambitions soar to putting 'boots on Mars by 2030'.
Speaking in New Delhi at the space summit, General Charles Bolden, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Washington DC, said "Our planet is a fragile oasis in the blackness of space... the partnerships are getting stronger and I have no doubt that the coming decades will find us with new capabilities to explore, human beings at new and farther destinations, a greater understanding of our home planet and greater unity among humanity."
India's far-reaching proposal of gifting a friendly bird in the sky to the 8 countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) died a premature death as Pakistan dropped out of the proposal saying it already has 'advanced capabilities in space'.
That Pakistan rebuffed India's gift was confirmed by the Ministry of External Affairs when it issued a statement saying "Pakistan has decided to opt out of the SAARC Satellite which will now be called the South Asian Satellite".
On a visit to ISRO, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mandated ISRO to fly a satellite that would aid better communication especially during natural disasters. This 'South Asian Satellite' would weigh nearly 2000 kg having 12 Ku band transponders with a foot print spanning across South Asia.
It seems all the seven nations in South Asia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have agreed to work together to enjoy the benefits of the 'South Asian Satellite' which is essentially a communications satellite with no remote sensing capabilities as of now.
That Pakistan's space agency the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) advised Islamabad to 'opt out' was surprising since this would have been the first time it would have gotten a toe hold with anything to with the Indian space agency.
The South Asian Satellite is being fabricated at ISRO's satellite centre in Bengaluru and will be launched later this year on an incredible journey that would bond the neighbours in space forever.
As Bolden told a crowd of 750 space scientists in New Delhi "we are on an incredible journey together today - a journey of breath taking exploration and that is probably the greatest thing that exploration does - it brings us together... (this is about) about turning science fiction into science fact and making the impossible possible."
Modi no doubt did try to make the impossible possible by extending on a friendly no-cost basis India's advanced capabilities in space to its smaller rival and neighbour Pakistan.
Despite, Islamabad having waged wars on New Delhi and its continued tacit support in aiding and abetting cross border terrorism on India. On the other-hand, science fiction could well turn into science fact, if rivals India and China do forge a partnership in sharing space technology.