Russia is planning to set up ground base stations in India for receiving communication signals of GLONASS. Similarly, ISRO will be allowed to set up IRNSS (now called NavIC) ground stations in Russia. This is another giant leap in Indo-Russian collaboration in the realm of space.
In an exclusive interview with Geospatial World, Vitaly Safonov, the General Deputy Director of Glavcosmos, a Russian state launch service provider and a subsidiary of ROSCOSMOS, said the arrangement is in line with the existing bilateral space ties between the two countries and it will go a long way in enabling better navigation signaling in both the countries.
In 2016, an MOU about joint placement was signed between ROSCOSMOS and ISRO on these lines. “Now, both sides have identified the locations for the ground stations. I think the Russian station will be located in Bangalore, and we offered Indian partners Novosibirsk city as the location for its station,” he added.
This agreement shores up the previous agreements signed in 2004 and 2006 when it was decided for that India and Russia will cooperate in the joint development of GLONASS-K and the launching of Russian navigation satellites GLONASS-M by a variant of Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).
GLONASS is a Russian navigation system that is similar to American GPS. It has 30 satellites in orbit so far. On the other hand, the ISRO’s NavIC is a regional navigation system with only seven satellites in orbit with plans to cover the sub-continent. “Today we are working on widening the ground station base and we are talking to several partners including India,” Safonov said, adding “It’s beneficial as India will have a ground station in Russia and the signal for GLONASS system and Navic system will be more precise and of course it will be better for the social and economic development of our countries”.
Deepening Indo-Russian collaboration in GLONASS would also boost India’s defence and provide the military with a reliable and compatible navigation, as a large chunk of Indian military hardware is Russian made.
Indo-Russian collaboration: Moon, Mars and deep space
For Chandrayan-2, India’s second moon mission, ROSCOSMOS and ISRO signed an agreement for joint lunar exploration and research, Safonov said. Russia was to provide the lander for the project, but it got delayed and Russia withdrew after the failure of Fobos-Grunt Mars mission which compelled ISRO to develop the lander also indigenously. The Chandrayan-2 is expected to be launched in 2018.
However, a few setbacks and reversals have impacted neither the scale and magnitude of collaboration nor dampened the will and enthusiasm for more technology transfer and joint projects.
Safonov also spoke about Mars and deep space cooperation, adding that “It is no secret that we are looking forward and planning to go to Mars and deeper space. Manned space programs will go to the moon and to the Mars, and we are allies in this project”.
To raise awareness about space and provide more opportunities to youth interested in space sciences, India and Russia collaborated in YouthSat, a dedicated satellite for university students that was built using Indian Mini Satellite-1 bus with the scientific purpose of a better understanding of earth’s surface and experimentation of energy in the earth’s crust. The first YouthSat was launched in 2011 from Sriharikota.
Accentuating the need for greater global cooperation in space, Safanov said “Today’s situation is that the world is globalizing and space cannot be away from that process. Nowadays every space agency, every country that is a player in the space market has its own constellation of earth observation satellites. But of course there is cooperation like an exchange of data from earth observation satellites and also receiving signals from different countries constellation of satellites.”
An enduring partnership
India and Russia have a long history of successful projects in space area and the cordial ties and multi-sectoral bilateral collaboration between the two countries date back to the Soviet times when the erstwhile USSR was the staunchest ally of a newly independent India.
“It starts with the launch of the first Indian satellite on a Soviet launch vehicle Vostok. Now we are also cooperating with Indian partners in different areas of space, earth observation, and communications,” Safanov pointed out.
Since the inception of the Indian Space Program, envisioned by the visionary Dr Vikram Sarabhai at a time when India was deficient in almost all aspects of technology, infrastructure and capability, Russia (then USSR) has actively supported Indian space program and provided it with both technical expertise and logistic support.
Being the first nation in the world to launch an artificial satellite in outer space in 1957, the Soviet Union was a space superpower and its assistance helped India tremendously.
Aryabhatta, India’s first satellite was launched on April 19, 1975, from Kapustin Yar, a rocket testing facility in Astrakhan region of Russia, on a Soviet Kosmos-3M rocket.
India’s second satellite, Bhaskara I, an earth observation satellite, was also launched with significant Soviet assistance. In 1977, ISRO developed an experimental laser Optical 1 with technical assistance from its Soviet counterparts.
It was Indo-Soviet space cooperation that made Rakesh Sharma the first Indian to travel to outer space aboard a Soyuz T-10 in 1984.
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent ending of the cold war, Indian and Russian ties in space further picked up the pace in 1994, with the signing of an agreement between ISRO and ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency.
The Russian angle in GSLV
In fact, it is the Russian offer for collaboration on the cryogenic technology that led to US banning ISRO’s GSLV rocket way back in 1992. Glavcosmos was to provide the technology as per an agreement signed in 1991 but backed out of the deal after the US imposed sanctions in 1992. At that time, the US government wanted the deal to be called off because it felt it violated some terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export control regime that US and Russia both are signatories to. The US government feared that India was making war missiles – a hollow charge since till date it isn’t practical to use cryogenic engines to power missiles.
In his book, India’s Rise as a Space Power, Prof U.R. Rao, former ISRO chairman, speculates that the embargo was the result of the commercial threat ISRO was starting to pose to NASA. “While the US did not object to the agreement with Glavkosmos at the time of signing, the rapid progress made by ISRO in launch vehicle technology was probably the primary cause which triggered [the sanctions],” Prof. Rao wrote in his book.
With Russia backing out, the project faced severe delays, and ISRO finally developed the GSLV indigenously.
Interestingly, with ISRO now ready with GLSV MK III, which is capable of launching up to 4,000-kg satellites into space, it was announced a few months back that the heavy rocket will launch the NASA–ISRO joint satellite – called NISAR – in 2021.