NASA-ISRO NISAR Mission and the conflict of interest

Lalit Shastri

NISAR is a joint Earth-observing mission between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) with the goal to make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes using advanced radar imaging.”

“The NISAR mission concept and the partnership between NASA and ISRO are in response to the National Academy of Science’s 2007 survey of Earth observational priorities for the next decade, known as the decadal survey. One of the top priorities identified in this survey was to gain data and insight in three Earth science domains: ecosystems, deformation of Earth’s crust and cryospheric sciences.”

“As NASA and ISRO discussed the possibility of a joint radar mission, it became clear that this goal was of great interest to the ISRO science community.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) and ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan signed documents in Toronto on Sept. 30, 2014, to launch a joint Earth-observing satellite mission and establish a pathway for future joint missions to explore Mars. Credit: NASA

“On Sept. 30, 2014, NASA and ISRO signed a partnership to collaborate and launch NISAR. The mission is targeted to launch in early 2023. NASA is providing the mission’s L-band synthetic aperture radar, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder and payload data subsystem. ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band radar, the launch vehicle and associated launch services.” (Click for reference).

The NASA-ISRO SAR (NISAR) Mission will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces, and ice masses providing information about biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise, and groundwater, and will support a host of other applications. NISAR will observe Earth’s land and ice-covered surfaces globally with 12-day regularity on ascending and descending passes, sampling Earth on average every 6 days for a baseline 3-year mission. NASA is currently initiating the formulation phase for the core observatory. (Credit NASA)

Inquiries have revealed that NASA was originally reluctant to include S band SAR. In 2016, they put severe pressure to remove S-band SAR through very top hierarchy of ISRO. But somehow rest of the project team opposed this move and development of S band was continued. In past 9 months, S band SAR was integrated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratpry (JPL). But it is rumoured that the S-SAR payload delivered to JPL by ISRO had severe electromagnetic leakage, making it unworthy of launch. It is also rumoured that with such performance, dropping of S-band SAR is the only possibility. 

ISRO need to come out categorically in public with the status of test and evaluation of S band SAR in the presence of L band SAR provided by JPL-NASA. If the performance of S band SAR is below expectation, ISRO should solve nagging technical issues rather than dropping their own baby. They must ensure their commitment that S band SAR should fly in NISAR. 

In between, Rakesh Bhan, the Associate Project Director of NISAR, the person officially designated to lead S-band SAR, has got linked with a Startup called Canopus Space. It has two Directors, one of them is Shanoo Raina, his wife. But curiously the mail address of the company is rakesh.bhan@canopus-space.com, in the name of her husband. She is a graduate in Arts and has no locus standi in SAR technology or data. Clearly putting the name of her husband in the email address is an indirect way of indicating to the potential investors and customers who the real person behind this company. The other director is Namrata Verma, daughter in law of Rakesh and Rashmi Verma, the owners of MapmyIndia. The ostensible purpose of this company is to launch constellation of SAR satellites for earth observation.

MapmyIndia, that works with data, apparently will be in the background.

If S band SAR is dropped from the NISAR Mission, NASA will not be under obligation to give free data. Instead they will price L band SAR data. In this scenario one cannot rule out the possibility of MapmyIndia becoming their seller of data and analytic product.  This will be a natural outcome as MapmyIndia is a formidable power as their forte is satellite data and data analytics products and software.

Conflict of Interest

In this scenario, association of Rakesh Bhan with MapmyIndia, though indirectly via his wife, raises some uncomfortable questions as he is in a position to play a major role when it comes to retaining or dropping the S band SAR payload. Certainly, it is a case of conflict of interest.

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