In 1992, the United States President George Bush placed several sanctions on the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). These sanctions prevented Russia from sharing cryogenic engine technology with ISRO, in an attempt to prevent India from making missiles.

Today, two decades later, US space agency NASA has collaborated with ISRO to co-develop the world’s most expensive earth-imaging satellite. This project is expected to cost both countries over $1.5 billion. The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) is expected to be launched in 2021 from India. And the rocket that is going to place it into orbit, is the same Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) that sanctions were put on in 1992.

According to Paul A Rosen, a scientist working on the NISAR satellite project,

NISAR is the first big collaboration between NASA and ISRO, certainly on RADAR but just in general as well. This is two frequency RADAR, it is an L-band 24 centimetre RADAR and S-band 13 centimetre. S-band is being built by ISRO and L-band by NASA. It is a major collaboration both in terms of the technical building of the satellite as well as working together across the Pacific between India and US.

NASA’s decision to collaborate with ISRO came after the Indian space agency launched its first radar imaging satellite (Risat-1) in April 2012. While some have termed this a spy satellite, the main function of the Risat-1 is to collect images of the earth’s surface during day and night, and in all weather conditions.

The deal for the NISAR satellite was finalised in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a declaration with former US President Barack Obama. The objective of this collaboration between the two countries is to use the satellite for the “benefit of humanity”. The data mapped from this satellite will be available to everyone.

Rosen further added,

We are going to be making snap shots of the Earth every week using these two radars that gives us a time lapse image of the motion of the tectonic plates, of the ice sheets, of the changes in vegetation over land in agriculture and forests. So what we are doing is looking at time variability of the Earth over the life of the mission to understand how disasters evolve, how earthquakes occur, how volcanoes occur, how the ice sheets are changing and affecting sea level rise, and how forest fires and changes in the forest cover affect the atmosphere. It is very relevant to what society cares about which is changes in our climate, changes in our environment and how it affects society.

Presently, the Space Application Centre (SAC) in Ahmedabad is flight testing a mini version of the radar satellite. This device was designed by the SAC and has been fixed on a Beechcraft Super King B 200 owned by ISRO. The primary aim of the flight testing is to understand weather and geographical conditions.

According to SAC director Tapan Misra,

We are testing the radar by taking images from about 8km above the sea level. The same area will be further studied by scientists from the ground level to understand the radar’s accuracy level.

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