India’s first interplanetary probe, the Mars Orbiter Mission, has left home on the first leg of a voyage of scientific discovery. Once again, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation performed its task with impeccable ease. A long and difficult trek now lies ahead of the spacecraft. It will circle Earth for the rest of this month, repeatedly firing an onboard liquid-propellant engine to gain velocity. Shortly after midnight on November 30, the engine will fire again to put it on course for the Red Planet, a journey of 680 million kilometres that will take almost 300 days to complete. Such deep space missions have inherent risks, especially for a country attempting one for the very first time, and failures litter the history of Mars exploration. Only the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Europe have succeeded in getting spacecraft to the fourth planet from the Sun. Japan, a nation whose space programme began well before India’s and which has rich experience in a variety of space missions, ran into problems that ultimately crippled its maiden Martian venture launched in 1998. The Nozomi spacecraft’s propulsion system malfunctioned and then powerful solar flares seriously damaged key components. The probe ended up shooting past Mars, instead of going into orbit around it. China tried to hitch a ride for its Yinghuo-1 spacecraft on Russia’s Phobos-Grunt. But the latter was unable to leave Earth orbit and burnt up as it fell to the ground early last year.
If India does triumph with its Mars mission, it will have stolen a march on its Asian rivals. But it will not mean that this country has pulled ahead of Japan or China, which have far more advanced capabilities in many areas of space technology. However, with efforts like the Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe launched five years back, the present Mars mission, and Chandrayaan-2, which will attempt to put a lander and rover on the Moon in a few years’ time, ISRO is unmistakably signalling its intention of being a significant player in space exploration. Should money be spent on such ventures? Questions about the worthwhileness of the space programme are nothing new. Studies have, however, shown that the country has more than recouped the money it invested in space. But those returns were not immediate and took many years, even decades, to materialise. It is difficult to predict all the benefits that might accrue from something like the Mars mission, some of which may be intangible but nevertheless vital for the country in the long run. The most important of such benefits could well be to fire the imagination of young minds in this country, getting them to dream about possibilities for tomorrow.