After the success of its first interplanetary mission to Mars in September 2014, India has now set its eyes on a mission to Venus. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s civilian space agency, will be undertaking the mission in 2025. According to reports, France has agreed to be part of the mission, the first time a French payload will be carried on an Indian space exploration mission. The French space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), is reported to have confirmed this in a statement last week, saying that it “will coordinate and prepare the French contribution.” ISRO’s Venus instrument, VIRAL (Venus Infrared Atmospheric Gases Linker) has been co-developed by Russian and French agencies.
Last week’s announcement appears to be a follow-up to the March 2018 India-France Joint Vision for Space Cooperation, which identified Mars and Venus as possible areas of future cooperation. The statement said the ISRO and CNES would work together in exploring the solar system and beyond, including joint work on the autonomous navigation of rovers on the Moon, Mars and other planets; aero-braking technologies for planetary exploration; modelling of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus; and inflatable systems for the exploration of Venus.
In November 2018, ISRO issued an “Announcement of Opportunity (AO) to international science community for Space-Based Experiments to Study Venus,” seeking international proposals for science payloads for its Venus mission. The AO provided the details of the Indian payloads on the Venus mission which include an S-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR), advanced radar for topside Ionosphere and subsurface sounding, ultraviolet (UV) imaging spectroscopy telescope, thermal camera, cloud monitoring camera, Venus atmospheric spectropolarimeter, airglow photometer, radio occultation experiment, Ionospheric electron temperature analyzer, mass spectrometer and a plasma wave detector. ISRO stated that the satellite will weigh around 100 kilograms with about 500 watts of power.
Though other countries have conducted missions to Venus, there is still a lot of exploration left to do. According to the ISRO, the Indian interest in pursuing the Venus mission is to gain greater understanding of surface/subsurface features and resurfacing processes; atmospheric chemistry, dynamics and compositional variations; and interaction with solar radiation/solar wind on Venus. Venus is generally considered uninhabitable “due to its volatile and acidic clouds,” but recent discovery of phosphine is an indicator of possible microbial life on the planet.
The recently announced partnership between India and France on the Venus mission comes against the backdrop of a long-standing and robust cooperation between the ISRO and CNES. India has long valued France as an important strategic partner and the two nations are engaged in many other sectors, including civil nuclear power and defense. France has cooperated with and aided the Indian space program since the 1960s. In March 2018, during the visit of the French President Emmanuel Macron to India, the two countries signed the India-France Joint Vision for Space Cooperation, identifying nine specific areas of cooperation including space situational awareness (SSA), high-resolution earth observation, satellite navigation, and space transportation systems. The two nations also pledged to work together to maintain space as a safe, secure and sustainable domain. In the context of Indian and French interest in maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, SSA and high resolution earth observation satellites could also mean the two countries will likely pursue maritime domain awareness (MDA).
ISRO and CNES are also working together on India’s first crewed space mission, Gaganyaan, scheduled for launch in 2022. The mission was announced by Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of CNES, on the sidelines of the 2018 Bengaluru Space Expo organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry and Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO. France has reportedly agreed to train Indian flight surgeons, essentially Indian Air Force doctors working on aviation medicine and those responsible for the astronauts’ health before, during and after the space mission. These doctors are to undergo a critical two-week period of training.
All this is made possible because of India’s and, in particular, ISRO’s comfort in doing business with France. This comes from the fact that France enjoys great confidence as a reliable partner of India. The fact that the two countries share a common strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific region only helps to cement their partnership further. India has traditionally had a well-recognized aversion to the concept of “alliance” in international politics, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi overcame this when he referred to France as an ally during a speech in Paris, when he said that for him “infra” meant something other than short-hand for infrastructure: “I would like to say that for me it is IN+FRA, which means the alliance between India and France.” France’s recent steps in supporting what India considers its core interests, such as the Indian position on Jammu and Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council, are a testament to the close strategic partnership between India and France. The fact that France, unlike the United States, has no negative baggage in Indian perceptions from the Cold War period helps. Moreover, Paris stood alone in supporting India’s decision to go nuclear in 1998, unlike other partners like Australia and Japan, which further reinforces Indian confidence in France as a long-term, reliable partner.