NASA ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellite Moving Forward

NASA ISRO synthetic aperture radar satellite (Credit: NASA)

A joint collaboration between NASA and ISRO to orbit an advanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite is moving forward toward a 2021 launch date as engineers at the two agencies learn to work together effectively, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“The NISAR project continues to track a risk that process differences between NASA and its development partner, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), could negatively affect cost and schedule, but a recent project assessment concluded that collaboration between the two organizations has been effective,” the GAO report stated.

“For example, in July 2017, the project signed an updated cooperative project plan that outlines how the two organizations should interface on topics such as requirements and technical information,” the assessment added.

The satellite “will study the solid Earth, ice masses, and ecosystems. It aims to address questions related to global environmental change, Earth’s carbon cycle, and natural hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanoes,” the review said.”The project will include the first dual frequency synthetic aperture radar instrument, which will use advanced radar imaging to construct large-scale data sets of the Earth’s movements.”

The GAO’s assessment of the NASA ISRO SAR project is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

NASA ISRO – Synthetic Aperture Radar

The NASA Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) is a joint project between NASA and ISRO that will study the solid Earth, ice masses, and ecosystems. It aims to address questions related to global environmental change, Earth’s carbon cycle, and natural hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanoes. The project will include the first dual frequency synthetic aperture radar instrument, which will use advanced radar imaging to construct large-scale data sets of the Earth’s movements. NISAR represents the first major aerospace science partnership between NASA and ISRO.

Project Information

NASA Lead Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
International Partner: Indian Space Research Organisation (India)
Launch Location: Satish Dhawan Space Centre, India
Launch Vehicle: Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark II
Mission Duration: 3 years
Requirement Derived from: 2007 Earth Science Decadal Survey
Budget Portfolio: Science, Earth Science

Project Summary

The NISAR project continues to operate within its schedule baseline, but is not meeting its cost baseline established at its confirmation review in August 2016. The project experienced $30 million in cost growth as the result of an increase in the scope of data collection. Also, about 2 months after confirmation, the project learned that its radar reflector contractor entered into two commercial contracts, which could put a strain on the contractor’s workforce and increased cost and schedule risk to the project.

NASA increased near-term funding of the project in May 2017, which allowed the project to accelerate radar reflector development. In addition, the project made design changes to the radar reflector boom assembly—used to deploy the reflector when the spacecraft reaches orbit—to address risks that could prevent the boom from latching in place. The NISAR project continues to track cost and schedule risks related to its partnership with ISRO. NISAR is progressing toward its critical design review in October 2018.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

The NISAR project continues to operate within its schedule baseline, but is not meeting the cost baseline established at its confirmation review in August 2016. The project experienced $30 million in cost growth as the result of an increase in the scope of data collection in response to additional data needs being identified by an interagency working group. The additional data include soil moisture and natural hazard data that would be of value for other federal agencies and the science community.

Also, about 2 months after confirmation, the project learned that its radar reflector contractor entered into two commercial contracts, which could put a strain on the contractor’s workforce and increased cost and schedule risk to the project. To avoid schedule conflicts with the contractor’s new contracts, NASA increased the project’s near-term funding in May 2017 so that the project could accelerate development of the radar reflector.

Credit: GAO

NISAR is progressing toward its critical design review in October 2018 and is currently holding cost and schedule reserves consistent with the level required by Jet Propulsion Laboratory policy.

Design

The NISAR project made design changes to the radar reflector boom assembly—used to deploy the radar reflector when the spacecraft reaches orbit—to address risks that could prevent the boom from latching in place. Specifically, the project modified how the boom is deployed, including using spring dampers to deploy the boom instead of a cable-driven system and non-explosive launch restraints to reduce shock levels. Project officials said the boom redesign has single point failures, but the probability of failure is lower compared to the previous design.

The NISAR project continues to track the system’s mass as a significant risk. Maintaining adequate mass margins is a key indicator of design stability. Project officials stated that they continue to improve their knowledge of mass through the use of engineering models and more matured design, and sometimes this has led to an increase in mass.

For example, the project used computer aided design to determine the length of cabling needed and found this increased its mass estimate over prior estimates. In July 2017, the project instituted a mass control plan, which project officials said would require all increases in mass to be reported and determinations be made regarding the necessity of the change.

Developmental Partner

The NISAR project continues to track a risk that process differences between NASA and its development partner, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), could negatively affect cost and schedule, but a recent project assessment concluded that collaboration between the two organizations has been effective. For example, in July 2017, the project signed an updated cooperative project plan that outlines how the two organizations should interface on topics such as requirements and technical information.

The project is also tracking a risk related to the ISRO provided launch vehicle—the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark II—which must meet all NASA-ISRO agreed-upon criteria before it can be used. For example, the GSLV Mark II must have three successful launches and one successful 4-meter fairing launch prior to NISAR’s planned launch date in 2021. As of January 2018, ISRO had four consecutive successful GSLV Mark II launches, but had not yet planned a 4-meter fairing launch.

Project Office Comments

NISAR project officials provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Wonder what is the backup launcher for the NISAR? The GSLV Mark II is a really strange launcher in it’s stack configuration that got no counterparts elsewhere.

  • passinglurker

    Heh yeah I like Indian rockets too. They’re all about what’s cheap and fast to develop to get the job done without obsessing over elegance or efficiency. It makes them very unique 🙂

  • duheagle

    Weird is in the eye of the beholder.

    The most important thing about the GSLV Mk-II is that it exists, and it’s reliable. It’s first mission was a failure, but all 5 missions since have been successes. India intends to launch several more missions on it between now and NISAR’s nominal 2021 launch date. NASA’s qualification criteria, including the proving out of the 4-meter fairing, should be done deals well before then.

    The only reason a “backup” would be needed for NISAR is if the GSLV Mk-II suffers a failure in the meantime. India is currently developing the GSLV Mk-III, an even more capable system that could be used as a backup if GSLV Mk-II stumbles. But, as noted, that doesn’t look to be very probable. In any event, the obvious “backup” of last resort is the SpaceX Falcon 9.