TORONTO - The heads of NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) signed agreements here Tuesday setting up a working group to explore deeper cooperation in Mars exploration, as spacecraft from each agency begin collecting science data from orbit above the Red Planet, and initiating joint development of a radar satellite designed to measure minute changes in the surface of the Earth.

During a bilateral meeting held in conjunction with the 65th International Astronautical Congress, Administrator Charles Bolden and ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan agreed to set up the Mars Working Group and to develop an L-band/S-Band NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (Nisar) mission for launch in 2020.

The Mars collaboration effort comes as project scientists from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) mission and ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) begin activating and calibrating the instruments they will use to study Mars and its atmosphere.  Discussions are already were underway on joint use of data from the two spacecraft, and the agreement is intended to find new ways to collaborate on Mars planetary science.

The working group will meet annually, with an explicit understand that their work may lead to a joint mission to Mars. Boldin said the agreement reflects a growing interest among NASA’s international partners in the U.S. agency’s plans to mount stepwise human exploration aimed at Mars, using the space around the Moon as a “proving ground” for the hardware that will be needed to press on to the planet.

“Every single international partner this time talks about Mars and wanting to be a part of the team,” Bolden told Aviation Week. “We signed several agreements; we signed two with the Indians, which was really important since today was the second day of President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi.”

The Nisar mission will be designed to measure the causes and effects of changes in Earth’s land surface, with possible areas of research to include the collapse of ice sheets, disturbances in ecosystems and natural hazards. It will use two radar frequencies – a first, according to NASA – to measures changes in the surface as small as 1 cm across to help gauge the impacts of global climate change.

Under the agreement signed Tuesday, NASA will contribute the L-band SAR, high-rate data communications gear, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder and a payload data subsystem. ISRO will launch the mission, provide the spacecraft bus, and contribute the S-band SAR.

NASA contributed two instruments, one of them a SAR, to ISRO’s 2008 Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which used the U.S. radar to detect water ice at the Moon’s north pole.