By Kamal Shah
From the success of the Chandrayaan 3 mission, which saw India landing on the uncharted south pole of the moon, to the ongoing India-France space collaboration, Indian Aerospace & Defence spoke exclusively with CNES President Philippe Baptiste. This conversation, set against the growing Indo-French strategic partnership, traces the contours of both nations’ space endeavours, the industry’s role and the opportunities awaiting it.
Q. As India and France celebrate the 25th anniversary of the strategic partnership, could you highlight the key achievements in the space sector and the path forward? Also, could you please highlight the significance of the cooperation agreement signed between India and France in 2022, especially in the new space landscape with micro, nano, and small satellites?
Ans: To begin with, I would like to congratulate India on the stellar success it has had in space. I recently conveyed my appreciation and professional admiration following the Chandrayaan 3 success with my Indian counterpart, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman, S Somanath. What you have achieved in this domain is impressive as a nation!
Our countries are now celebrating a quarter century of strategic partnership. Furthermore, we are honouring 60 years of space cooperation. The first space agreement was signed in May 1964. This came after India’s first space launch, which took place in 1963 and witnessed the launch of the first sounding rocket from Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, on 21 November 1963, marking the beginning of the Indian Space Programme. Seeing all the historic milestones made over the years since your country’s space program began is genuinely remarkable.
Returning to today’s cooperation, we have robust collaboration between our new space ecosystems. I want to highlight South India, particularly Bangalore and Hyderabad, which has a vibrant new space hub. We are strongly connected with this hub along with our industrial partners in France, including startups. We are closely collaborating with the Indian space industry and startups as well. So, it is a very close and ongoing collaboration.
Q. How do you see the successful landing of Chandrayaan-3 influencing future collaboration between CNES and ISRO, especially given India’s demonstrated capabilities in cost-effective space missions? Also, what are your thoughts on the economic potential of space exploration and how countries can strike a balance between innovation and budget constraints?
Ans: What India did with Chandrayaan 3 is not only a great technical success but is also hands down proof that you can be cost-effective in the process. Low cost does not mean cheap technology; on the contrary, I am trying to convey outstanding technology with low cost, which was implemented in a time-effective manner. Simply put, India has demonstrated the capability to implement an ambitious space project on time and at a meagre cost. As a nation and space agency, we are most certainly interested in this approach!
Europe is great at technology, and we have solid industry partners, especially Airbus and Thales, among others, to name a few. However, we need to work more towards reducing costs. This is very important for us and is a strong focus, and partnering with countries like India will be an excellent way because we can learn a lot from what you all are doing. Adding on to these aims, we also want to rely more on startups to bring new ideas, new technology, and new innovation to the fore while aiming to lower expenditure. It is a delicate yet crucial balance.
Q. Could you elaborate on how the joint research and exploration of Mars, Venus, and asteroids as part of the 2019 collaboration is progressing? The TRISHNA mission and the Space Climate Observatory (SCO) are highlighted in the ‘Horizon-2047’ document.
Ans: CNES and ISRO have collaborated and formed a joint working group on Mars, Venus and asteroids. Nevertheless, it is premature to elaborate on the future mission at the current juncture. We are still working and trying to see what we can do together. However, I can shed light on TRISHNA, a significant contribution to the Paris Climate Accords. TRISHNA is an infrared thermal satellite that allows a better understanding of heat exchange, so it is now a crucial component for climate surveillance.
This satellite adds to existing missions that provide such data to the global scientific community. I would like to highlight that there are already many French and Indian satellites that are flying and delivering a lot of critical data. This new development is significant and will be of great interest to the scientific community, which is very excited and anticipating the success of this satellite.
Now, coming to space for climate observatory, the SCO originated in New Delhi in 2016 with a joint declaration signed by 60 agencies. It is a splendid tool available to space agencies and governments to help mitigate climate change. Its achievements are mentioned in the Horizon-2047 document, adopted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron on 14 July. Our space cooperation endeavours, in general, are a central strategic pillar upholding the French and Indian partnership.
Q. India’s Space economy is currently worth eight billion USD and it is projected to reach forty billion USD by 2040. Do you see any possibility of French private investment, for direct investment or application based investment from the French private industry?
Ans: Yes, absolutely. I know that the Government of India will release a revolutionary set of rules, and India will become one of the next space superpowers, and by that, I draw particular reference to India’s upcoming position in the global space economy. Our domestic private industry is already in touch with potential private partners. France supports this endeavour, and it may be worth reminiscing on our six-decade-long friendship.
India and France have been immensely close for a long time. The current geopolitical context is the best time to further cement this partnership and continue the friendship between our two countries in the cosmic realm with scientific, industrial and business activities in this sector. The ongoing relationship with India is a positive development for us as a nation.
Q. The USA has started embracing a model of public-private partnerships in space exploration. With corporate entities like SpaceX and Blue Origin playing prominent roles in the new age of space exploration, how does CNES view such a model, and are there any possibilities for similar collaborations in France for the Indian private companies and start-ups?
Ans: First, let me mention that Indian investment in France is always possible and welcome! Indian companies have activities in France and can undoubtedly benefit from all the support we provide. Some of these investments have already happened. For instance, Centum Electronics acquired Adetel, which was a French company. This is just one example to paint a picture; there will likely be more in the future.
The question of private investment in exploration is really a turning point for the space industry. A new business is being created in front of our eyes today. Of course, the main customers for space exploration is the Government itself because we [governments] want to send astronauts, build space stations, infrastructure, etc.
The model has changed completely. In the past, we were building everything ourselves with the help of the industry. However, we were defining everything and are now moving towards a new model. For instance, let’s take the example of a space station. We will not build the space station, but we will instead rely on private investors who will develop their own space station, and we will rent it because, basically, we want to use it for some time for some scientific activities.
That is an influential model because first, the industry will do its best to reduce costs because there will be some competition. Furthermore, we will also be sharing things. Let me present an example: France, India, Europe, India, and perhaps even other partners could share the same space station built by a private industry consortium. It allows many different new ways to explore space.
Behind that, there is also the fact that there are also private entities that want to take part in this exploration. For instance, some research and development (R & D) programs are led by private companies interested in a space station. Tomorrow, we will have a new model where the private sector takes a much larger part.
Q. How will the involvement of respective space industries aid in achieving resilient access to space? Which technological innovations can be leveraged in this process?
Ans: Resilient access to space is crucial. We are talking about launchers and rockets. This is a risky business. From time to time, you have failures and face difficulties. We are in a tricky situation in Europe because we don’t have any launchers available right now. So, even with more players, it’s still a complex business. I think that the first thing we could imagine, and we could try to do, is to try to increase the number of backup agreements between launch operators.
Typically, between France and India, we could have such backup agreements. To paint a scenario, if some of your launchers are unavailable for some reason, then you could have an automatic backup with us and, on the other hand, similar arrangements for us if we have such shortages. This kind of agreement could increase the resilience of access to space.
Q. Can you share the vision for the future of the India-France space cooperation, especially in leveraging respective strengths for joint ventures and missions? How did PM Modi’s recent visit to France affect bilateral relations and the space industry in either country?
Ans: The recent visit of PM Narendra Modi was significant, and the fact that space was one of the strategic topics is also fundamental because it has a substantial political moment. The cooperation we have today is genuine and gives a very positive signal to the Indian and French space industries to work together. The topics covered were vast. Climate change, for instance, is a priority for India and France, and in space, it will stay a priority for many years. But on top of that, space exploration is also fascinating. We could imagine many different schemes for space exploration!
We could work together on a new generation of launchers. It may be pertinent to highlight that engines have been a critical area where France and India have worked hand-in-hand. The engines you are using today in Indian launchers were initially developed in France and then handed over to India, which has dramatically improved them.
The cooperation is robust, and if we start this cooperation, we could also work on exploring private space stations, which could be a topic. On top of that, defence and security cooperation is pivotal, and there has always been a strong link between India and France in this regard. We need to work together to protect our assets in space. So we need to reinforce this very strongly, and I plan to come very often to India to further develop on all these points.