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Indian astronaut to join ISS crew in ’24

New Delhi: Indian and US space agencies will collaborate to put an Indian astronaut on the International Space Station by the end of the next year— marking a watershed moment in India’s growing space ambitions.

The collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was announced on Tuesday by US senator Bill Nelson, who also serves as the administrator of Nasa.

Nelson said he had met Jitendra Singh, union minister of state (MoS) for space, to urge him to speed up the human mission on a private space launch.

“The details are being worked out, and Isro is presently working on it,” Nelson said during a visit—his first— to India.

The visit followed last year’s signing of the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) treaty by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden—expanding collaboration on emerging space technologies.

Nelson added that the two national space agencies have formed a joint working group on human spaceflight collaboration, which will work on upcoming human space missions, as well as other space research projects.

The India-US space collaboration will also work on a major satellite—the Nasa-Isro Synthetic Aperture Radar (Nisar).

Calling the satellite a “great observatory”, Nelson said, “There is so much that India and the US can do together. We’re already doing a lot of science together—a good example of that is that in Q1 2024, in a joint venture, India will launch Nisar. This is a part of great observatories. Four such observatories, combined with 25 spacecrafts looking at the earth, is a combination that will help us precisely determine what’s happening to our planet and its climate.”

The satellite combines two spectrum bands—one each for Isro and Nasa—which will expand its capability of analyzing terrestrial, atmospheric and weather anomalies. Integration of the satellite’s capability was conducted at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, while testing is currently underway at the U.R. Rao Satellite Centre in Bengaluru.

Nisar is expected to be launched into orbit aboard a mission of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle—India’s heaviest capacity rocket—some time next year.

To be sure, the manned space mission to carry an Indian astronaut to the ISS is different from Gaganyaan—India’s own manned space mission that aims to launch an astronaut from home soil, and carry them to the lunar surface. The first unmanned pilot of the Gaganyaan mission is expected to be conducted early next year.

Nelson’s visit is a sign of increasing collaboration between international entities with India’s space sector, which was liberalized in 2020. Since then, over 150 private space startups have been launched in India, the more prominent of which have also now begun attracting international investments.

However, both the investment quantum, as well as the active client base of India’s private space entities, remain limited in comparison to private US space firms such as SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others. Nelson added during a media roundtable that the present discussions did not include enabling private sector collaborations—stating that any onus of this will lie with Isro.A press statement added that Isro is presently in discussions with private US space firms to explore collaborations for India’s commercial space firms.

It has been a challenge for India’s space firms to attract clients in the US, which has stringent regulations such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) through the US Federal Aviation Administration that restrict export and import vendors in sensitive sectors such as space operations.

India, which has only around 2% market share of the global space business, is vying for a larger share. On 23 August, India created history by becoming the first nation to land a rover at the lunar south pole region—and only the fourth after the US, the erstwhile Soviet Union and China to land on the moon.

On 10 October, Pawan Goenka, chairman of Centre-backed nodal space agency, Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (In-Space), said that the private space market of India can potentially attract up to $22 billion in private sector investment in the next decade—and generate market revenue of $44 billion by 2033.



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Updated: 28 Nov 2023, 11:30 PM IST


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