The Mangalyaan was designed and built for a fraction of the cost of NASA's MAVEN project. Image: ISRO.

US-India Space Cooperation Reaches New Heights


On the 23rd of September, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) celebrated successfully putting a satellite into orbit around Mars. The Mangalyaan (“Mars craft” in Hindi) arrived at the Red Planet after 10 months of travel across 66 million miles of space. The satellite will spend the remainder of its time studying the surface of Mars and scanning the atmosphere for chemical methane. The launch was heralded as a landmark achievement, being history’s only successful first attempt in launching a Mars orbiter, with ISRO now accomplishing a feat that eluded the US, Russia, and the EU in their earliy efforts.

Mangalyaan’s success represents a triumph of international cooperation, particularly between India and the United States. On the Mangalyaan mission, NASA provided ISRO with communications capabilities, assisting with deep space navigation, and tracking support services. This excursion is the latest in a long line of space cooperation between the two nations which dates back to the beginning of the Indian space program with the 1963 launch of a US-made Nike-Apache rocket from Thumba, India. When the Indian National Satellite System was launched in the 1980s, all four satellites were constructed by American companies, and three were put into orbit by American launch vehicles.

In 2004, a formal framework for cooperation between the US and India was set up as part of the Joint Working Group on Civil Space, a follow-up to the US-India Conference on Space Science, Application, and Commerce held in Bangalore. The two nations have since collaborated on dozens of significant projects, mostly across the areas of space science, Earth observation, satellite navigation, and microwave remote sensing. A recent area of collaboration has been space situational awareness (SSA), or the ability to monitor and predict the changing environment of outer-space, in order to avoid collisions and accidents involving natural and manmade objects.

The US and India have much to learn from one another in the field of space exploration. While NASA’s budget has been reduced recently, their years of experience are of vast benefit to ISRO. Similarly, as a new player in the space industry, the Indian organization can teach the US something about cost-cutting. The Mangalyaan project was a low cost mission, with a budget of just $74 million. In comparison, NASA’s Mars exploration project, ‘MAVEN’, which also launched at the end of 2013, cost around $671 million.

As the US makes room in outer-space for emerging actors such as India and China, the importance of international cooperation will become ever more critical. Collaborative space exploration is an opportunity for India and the US to work together on a grand scale, and serves as a reminder of the great things that can be accomplished when nations work together.

Jonathan Gordon recently graduated from the University of Sydney and is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.