On Monday, Jean-Yves Le Gall made a quick, quiet official trip to ISRO’s Bangalore headquarters just about a month after taking charge as president of France’s space agency CNES (Centre National d’Études Spatiales / National Centre for Space Studies.) Created in 1961, CNES, which is the fount of French and European space activities, has also given what is today the world’s leading commercial launch service vehicle, Ariane, among other technologies. In this short interaction ahead of his meeting with his ISRO counterpart, Mr. Le Gall, who has a place in the Space Hall of Fame, stresses the importance of an enduring Indian space connection.
What is this visit about?
As you know, I moved from [European launch services company] Arianespace to CNES last month. India is the one of the most important countries of cooperation for France. It is also the right time because last February when President Hollande visited India a letter of intent was signed between CNES and ISRO to define what could be the cooperation after the successes of [their joint weather satellite missions] Megha-Tropiques and SARAL-AltiKa, which were [respectively] launched by the PSLV two years ago and in February.
We have plenty of things to do together and this is why I decided to pay one of my first official visits to ISRO and meet [its Chairman] Dr. Radhakrishnan.
‘Plenty of things’ would include more joint satellites missions such as Megha Tropiques and SARAL-AltiKa?
These are exactly what we have to decide. The strong scientific cooperation between CNES and ISRO led to many projects, [in particular] two most important ones during the last two years — Megha-Tropiques and SARAL-Altika. At the same time, we have been launching a lot of satellites for ISRO from French Guiana.
We have now extended the cooperation. The letter of intent signed in February puts a new basis for cooperation.
Today is the first meeting. The discussions with Dr. Radhakrishnan [later in the day] will define a new format for our cooperation. I can already say we are going to focus on research and technology, an important area. The next one will be probably in the end of October when we organise the annual meeting of CNES and ISRO. I will probably come back here.
How significant is the ISRO-CNES cooperation today and how do you visualise its future?
Megha-Tropiques and SARAL-AltiKa have been very interesting projects, [so much so] that NASA wanted to join us. The data gathered by Megha-Tropiques are creating a real threshold in this science.
Now we have to decide what would be the building blocks of the next steps of our cooperation and what we are going to do together.
In my opinion this cooperation is within the framework of the [larger] cooperation between France and India with its several different pillars such as defence, nuclear energy and space.
So successful in space [ties] are we that we have to now continue this strong link in inventing new areas of cooperation.
When Megha-Tropiques or SARAL-AltiKa completes its life do you foresee its getting replenished with their follow-on satellites? Would NASA have a role in it later?
For both, we will [have to] see. Megha-Tropiques provided a lot of data. Today what is at stake is whether to use the existing data or acquire new data. Our scientists took the decision to elaborate France’s data.
We [may have] created interest in it for NASA but we are very interested in keeping this unique link between France and India in this business.
There is also talk of ISRO launching France’s earth observation satellite SPOT-7, the way it did SPOT-6 last year.
This is another aspect of our cooperation. Yes, a few months ago SPOT-6 was launched by ISRO. In the coming months, is our project to launch SPOT-7.
We are launching some satellites for ISRO just as it is launching some for France. Two [Indian] satellites will be launched from the Guiana Space Centre in July and August — INSAT-3D and GSAT-7.
At CNES what innovations are you looking at in terms of low-cost access to space — which is a common concern of space agencies — and technologies related to spacecraft?
I think low-cost is the new frontier of space technology. Until now most of our projects were technology driven. There is clamour worldwide in favour of projects which are cost driven. This is why France started to think about the next generation of Ariane launch vehicles [to address this need].
We are now working on the next launch vehicle, the Ariane 6. The first flight is slated for 2020. This launcher will be defined as a low-cost approach whereas Ariane 5 is defined as technology driven.
Ariane 6 will be smaller than Ariane 5 and will launch six-tonne payloads to the GTO [geostationary transfer orbit] — which is about half of Ariane-5’s capability.
We hope the price tag will be less than half of Ariane 5. We plan to decrease launch price by 20 to 50 per cent compared to current launch prices.
On the satellite side, in Europe (European space agencies) and France we are investing a lot in electrical propulsion in order to have three communication satellites which will be smaller, less expensive to launch and with better performance. The programme is called NEOSAT. The huge R&D programme was decided at the gathering of European Ministers which took place in Naples last November.
Today countries are also concerned about anti-satellite technologies. What is being done at CNES to counter such threats?
This relates to defence and I am not familiar with it nor can I comment.
In India are you also looking at forging linkages that go beyond ISRO?
No. Our present and past in India is ISRO. We have excellent friendship with ISRO and will continue it. For CNES the partner is ISRO. I can tell you we are impressed by the achievements of Dr. Radhakrishnan as the head of ISRO.