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Cooperation in Space between the USSR and India — Satish Dhawan (1981)


The launching of Sputnik in 1957 symbolized a new dimension in collaboration and cooperation between nation states. It represented in a way removal of barriers between countries since a satellite in orbit will necessarily have to pass over different regions of the world. Sputnik and all satellite launches since then are therefore a concrete manifestation of the international nature of Space which has so far been characterized by a spirit of cooperation and sharing between different countries of the world in terms of passing on benefits that are possible from space to all countries.

Collaboration and cooperation between the USSR and India in the area of space has been taking place from as far back as 1962. The USSR was one of the three countries that helped India in setting up the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS). This station was set up with the idea of carrying out scientific investigations of the Upper Atmosphere through the conduct of sounding rocket launches. Thumba was chosen as the rocket launching range because of its location on the geomagnetic equator, studies of which engaged the attention of many scientists at that time, The Soviet assistance and help for setting up TERLS was of great value since it provided the nucleus from which the entire Indian Space Programme would evolve and grow into what it is today.

An understanding of weather systems constitutes an important element in the scientific programme of any country. The advent of space technology made available rockets which could be used to routinely sound the atmosphere and make physical measurements of parameters that influence basic meteorological processes. Cooperation in this important area has been going on between the Indian Space Research Organisation and the USSR-Hydrometeorological Services since the early 60's. As part of this collaboration the Soviet Union has supplied M-100 rockets. These have been routinely launched from Thumba to gather meteorological data. This data is jointly analysed by Soviet and Indian scientists. The meteorological sounding rocket programme has been formalized by a Memorandum of Understanding signed in May 1970. Under this agreement two major themes — one addressing the study of the structure and circulation of the upper atmosphere at low altitudes, and the other addressing the study of the link of strato-mesospheric processes with solar activity — are covered. To carry out these programmes, on an average about 70 rockets are launched from Thumba every year.

The Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station is also an international range under UN sponsorship and is available to all countries who want to launch rockets for scientific studies.

As the Indian Space Programme picked up tempo in the late 60's and early 70's, there was a need for India to be able to build up capability for building and launching of satellites. This process was made easier by an offer from the USSR to launch an Indian satellite into orbit with a USSR rocket carrier. An agreement between ISRO and the USSR Academy of Sciences was signed in 1972. This marked a major milestone in the Indo- Soviet cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. The agreement resulted in the launching of the first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975. The design and fabrication of this satellite benefited substantially from the USSR assistance in terms of equipment and expert advice. Solar panels and batteries for supply of power for Aryabhata as well as onboard tape recorders for data storage were provided free of cost to India by the USSR

As a continuation of this cooperation, the Academy of Sciences of the USSR has also launched the first experimental earth observations satellite of India, Bhaskara-I, in 1979. Bhaskara-I established Indian system capability in the building and launching of remote sensing satellites as well as the capabilities in the use of satellite remote sensed data for applications in resources disciplines like Agriculture, Forestry, Geology etc. A second experimental remote sensing satellite, Bhaskara-II, is also scheduled for launch in 1981 by the USSR. This would be a successor to the Bhaskara-I satellite.

Another major area of cooperation between India and the USSR relates to the use of high altitude balloons for scientific experiments. The USSR scientists have used the balloon facility at Hyderabad for conducting cosmic ray related experiments. Under a formal protocol signed in 1976 these flights take place on an annual basis from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research balloon facility at Hyderabad.

One of the important uses of satellites is for fixing the positions of different points on the ground with a high degree of accuracy. Geodesy, the science which fixes positions of point on the earth has gained substantially from space technology. A number of geodetic satellites are in orbit which in conjunction with certain ground-based equipment like lasers and photographic cameras help fix positions of points on the ground to an accuracy of a few meters.

A necessary element for carrying out this accurate position fixing is a precise determination of satellite orbits which is also necessary for a number of other space-based applications such as communications, remote sensing etc. Recognizing the need for building up capability in this area, an agreement was signed between the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the Indian Space Research Organisation in 1975. Under this Agreement, the USSR supplied camera and laser equipment to India for installation at Kavalur in South India. The station is operational and has successfully tracked a number of international satellites as well as Indian satellites like Aryabhata and Bhaskara. This station will help improve the capabilities of the ISRO tracking network.

Indo-Soviet cooperation in Space Research has been extremely fruitful as far as India is concerned. The Soviet assistance has supplemented the Indian efforts towards self-reliance and has helped accelerate the Indian programme towards achieving the national goals of using space technology for development.

It is thus seen that cooperative endeavors between the USSR and India have resulted in substantial benefits to both the countries. The Soviet assistance has enhanced the progress of Indian efforts towards use of space for practical benefits. At the same time launch of sounding rockets from Thumba, conduct of balloon experiments from Hyderabad and data from the Kavalur station have substantially benefited the working scientists of both the countries.

The nature of space and space technology is international and the Indo-USSR cooperation in this area is in a way a symbol of this international nature of space. It provides a concrete example of how countries can work together to translate the potential of space into tangible benefits. 

From a collection of documents and comments on Studies Indo-Soviet Cooperation

Edited by Dr. Shankar Dyal Sharma