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BRICS Member States Negotiating Earth Observation Satellite Sharing Framework

The leaders of the BRICS countries, from left to right, China, Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa, at the 11th BRICS Summit in Brazil, November 2019. Photograph courtesy of EPA-EFE/Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik.

The member states of the BRICS economic bloc – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – are in the midst of negotiating a mutually beneficial framework that will allow each country to access certain Earth observation satellites from each other, according to various press reports.

The aim, according to India’s Minister for Space Jitendra Singh, is to establish a  “virtual constellation of remote-sensing satellites,” whereby all BRICS countries can access satellite data from Earth observation satellites operated by member states through ground stations built in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Singh, in a response to a question from the Indian parliament, stated that the Earth observation data would be used by BRICS member countries for civil applications such as disaster response, resource and land management, environmental monitoring, and planning.

“Progress has been made in technical discussions to realise a virtual constellation of remote sensing satellites, as part of the BRICS Programme,” Singh told the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on 5 December 2019. “Technical aspects with respect to identifying the satellites and the ground stations for the initial virtual constellation were discussed by the Space Agencies,” Singh added, referring to the head of space agencies meeting that took place during the 11th BRICS Summit in Brazil in November 2019.

The Brazilian BRICS Summit declaration spotlighted progress on a virtual BRICS Earth observation satellite constellation, stating that, “We take note of the progress made on the negotiation of the Agreement on Cooperation on BRICS Remote Sensing Satellite Constellation and look forward to its early conclusion.”

A 2017 China National Space Administration (CNSA) briefing to the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) suggested that Brazil and China will contribute their China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite-4 (CBERS-4) system, with a reported resolution of 20 metres; Russia will contribute its fleet of Kanopus-V Earth observation satellites that boast a resolution of 2.5 metres; India will offer its ResourceSat-2 remote sensing satellite with a resolution of 5.8 metres; China its GaoFen-1 (GF-1) series of Earth observation satellites that have a resolution of two metres.

South Africa is the only BRICS country that presently does not operate its own high-resolution Earth observation satellite, although some reports suggest that it operates – or has access to – a classified S-band radar imaging satellite built by Russian satellite manufacturer NPO Mashinostroyeniya.

BRICS member states are coordinating on a number of space-related themes, with working groups on geospatial technologies, astronomy, and photonic technologies meeting regularly.

Also in the 2019 BRICS Summit declaration, member states expressed their collective concern about a potential arms race in space stating:

“We express our serious concern about the possibility of an arms race in outer space and reaffirm the need to carry on activities in the exploration and peaceful uses of outer space in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We emphasize the urgent need to negotiate a legally binding multilateral instrument that could fill the gap in the international legal regime applicable to outer space, including on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space. We stress that practical transparency and confidence-building measures may also contribute towards this goal. In this connection, we welcome the relevant work carried out by the UN Group of Governmental Experts on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) and regret that it was unable to reach consensus on its report. We underscore that any instrument on this matter should be non-discriminatory and contain operative provisions on the right to develop technology for peaceful purposes.”

The 2020 BRICS Summit will be held in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in July 2020.

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