On August 13, NASA made history with the launch of the Parker Solar Probe, humanity’s grand first attempt to touch the sun. But amid all the anticipation and fanfare, a different team of scientists continued work on its own solar mission, nearly halfway across the world from Cape Canaveral. The scientists have been laboring quietly for a decade, in the shadow of their global and regional competitors. Now, they’re ready for their own moment in the sun.
The team is from India, and its mission is launching the Aditya-L1, a satellite designed to study the solar corona, just like the Parker Solar Probe. Set to launch in 2019, Aditya — Sanskrit for “sun” — will be the Indian Space Agency’s (ISRO) second high-profile space mission since it launched its Mars orbiter in 2013.
The Mars mission was meant to send the world a message: India is a force to be reckoned with in the international space race, and not only because of the nation’s advanced space technology. ISRO’s previous lunar and Mars missions were deployed at a fraction of NASA’s enormous cost, and Aditya-L1’s attempt to touch the sun aims to do the same. With Aditya-L1, India seems poised to advance its status among the global science community and, indeed, among private companies seeking a bargain on space exploration technology.
But some argue that Aditya-L1’s race to touch the sun could — and should — be used to achieve another important goal: Giving India a leg up in the political and military sphere. Nearby Russia and China have established their scientific might in the international space race, and, depending on who you ask, have used their technological success to intimidate their slightly smaller (but no less populous) neighbor.
“The solar mission is also, again, a mission that is being driven by the scientific community more than the political community,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, the current Head of the Nuclear & Space Policy Initiative at India’s Observer Research Foundation, tells Inverse. “This is an important mission, but there’s a gap I see between the political establishment and the scientific establishment.”
A Shoestring Budget ::
If you were to imagine an Olympic podium of space research, the winners would be very clear, says Cameron Hickert, an expert on China-United States relations and a research assistant at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Foreign Affairs. “Nobody’s really talking about beating the US in the space realm,” he tells Inverse. “That’s why, when we talk about this space race, we’re thinking about the more feasible race that happens on the regional level.”
Few would contest that NASA takes home the global gold when it comes to space. Trailing behind is Russia’s ROSCOSMOS, but there’s a competition for bronze between India and China. If you ask Rajagopalan, who was the former assistant director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, the reason India is neck and neck with China in the regional space race rather than far beyond it is because ISRO has long prided itself on its ability to cut costs. It wanted to show that it could achieve the same status of scientific inquiry and research without burning through cash at the rate of the United States or Russia.
“ISRO has kind of shown itself as reliable and economically feasible — one of the cheaper options,” she says. “India has shown it is capable of undertaking a large and credible mission, but China is fast coming up in that regard.”
India’s space program operates on roughly one-tenth of the budget of other programs across the world. Frugality, Rajagopalan explains, is not a choice made out of necessity but rather a strategic decision. Less expensive technology will always be more attractive to commercial space programs, which very likely won’t stay loyal to technology from a single country if there’s a safe, scientifically capable bargain to be had.