A faster, cheaper Mars orbiter

India’s Mars orbiter mission tells the world that the more technology was denied the more determined the country became to master space technologies

September 25, 2014 12:12 am | Updated April 20, 2016 06:11 am IST

MAKING HISTORY: In the Martian marathon, India has reached the finish line ahead of China. Picture shows the rocket carrying the Mars Orbiter lifting off from Sriharikota on November 5, 2013.

MAKING HISTORY: In the Martian marathon, India has reached the finish line ahead of China. Picture shows the rocket carrying the Mars Orbiter lifting off from Sriharikota on November 5, 2013.

India has created global history by becoming the first Asian nation to reach the Mars orbit in a space mission. The success is sweeter because this has been done in its maiden attempt. No other country that has attempted a mission to Mars has succeeded in reaching the planet on debut. So, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) can claim that it has done a shade better than accomplished space powers such as the United States and Russia in reaching Mars.

India’s Mangalyaan has cost the country Rs.450 crore or about $70 million; it is without doubt the cheapest inter-planetary mission ever to be undertaken since Martian exploration began. On September 22, a mission by NASA called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), made at a cost of over $670 million, reached Mars. This Indian marathon took 300 days to cover a distance of over 670 million kilometres — a sprint really in a record time of 10 months.

The first official hint that India was undertaking a mission to Mars came in the budget speech of 2012. Subsequently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formally declared in his Independence Day speech that year that an Indian mission was heading to Mars. The mission itself was launched on a balmy afternoon on November 5, 2013, and the journey from the Red Fort to the Red Planet has had a dream run.

On his last visit to ISRO, when he witnessed the launch of a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India’s Mars orbiter is a “great achievement” since it costs less than the making of the Hollywood blockbuster movie “Gravity” which had a tag of $100 million.

An inexpensive mission Many have questioned why India should be sending a robotic mission to Mars when there is so much poverty, malnutrition, death, disaster and diseases among its 1.2 billon population. Some have even called this mission as being a part of India’s “delusional dream” of becoming a superpower in the 21st century. There can be nothing farther from the truth. If one analyses the cost of the Mars Orbiter mission of Rs.450 crore, for Indians it works out to be about Rs.4 per person. Today, a bus ride would cost a lot more.

India’s Mars Orbiter mission has paved the way for cheaper and faster inter-planetary probes. During his upcoming U.S. visit, Mr. Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama are likely to sign a new agreement for the making of the joint Indo-U.S. Radar Satellite Mission. China and India recently signed an agreement on “peaceful uses of outer space.” So, many are now wanting to partner in ISRO’s success.

The mission, within minutes of reaching Mars, has already taken its first images of the Martian surface. The Mars colour camera, which is essentially an Indian eye to track Mars, will bring back the first tangible truths to Indian taxpayers that their money has been well spent.

If the 20th century witnessed a “space race” between the U.S. and the USSR, the 21st century is seeing an Asian space race. In most aspects of space technology, China is way ahead of India. It has larger rockets, bigger satellites and several rocket ports. It even launched its first astronaut in space way back in 2003 and has a space laboratory in the making.

In 2008, when India undertook its first mission to moon Chandrayaan-1, China raced ahead and orbited its Chang’e-1 satellite ahead of India. But in this Martian marathon, India has reached the finish line ahead of China. This now puts India in the pole position as far as Asian Martian exploration goes. In 2012, the first Chinese probe to Mars Yinghuo-1 failed. It was riding atop a Russian satellite called Phobos-Grunt. But the Chinese probe failed to even leave earth. Earlier in 1998, a Japanese probe to Mars ran out of fuel.

Today, India’s Mars orbiter mission has shown that the Indian elephant has lumbered ahead of the Chinese red dragon. For the record, ISRO’s chairman Dr. K. Radhakrishnan has gone on record by saying, “We are not racing with anybody. We are racing with ourselves. We have to race to reach the next level of excellence.”

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Challenges ahead Now that India has reached Mars, ISRO has several other goals and challenges to meet. Coming up in the next few weeks is the test firing of India’s monster rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III, a rocket capable of carrying heavy payloads into space. This flight will carry a dummy crew module, which is part of a programme for the development of critical technologies that ISRO seeks to develop as part of its human space flight programme.

As ISRO says, the first astronaut could well be a woman. In a few weeks, an Indian navigation satellite will be also launched into space. By 2017, ISRO wants to undertake India’s second mission to moon Chandrayaan-2 which will have an Indian lander and a rover. Subsequently, it also wants to launch dedicated missions to study the Sun and the planetary bodies in the solar system.

Mr. Modi, in his stirring speech to ISRO, spoke of its capabilities and efficiencies. It is an eye-opener that a country which can undertake a mission to Mars is unable to provide electricity to 400 million citizens. What is worse is that 600 million Indians still don’t have access to toilets. It is hoped that Mr. Modi would have learnt a lesson or two from the Indian space agency on how to undertake cost-effective projects with no time or cost overruns. If only Mr. Modi internalises this big learning can his dream of having “Swachh Bharat” by 2019 become a reality.

The Orbiter mission undoubtedly tells the world that India is a space power to reckon with. The more technology was denied to India, the more determined it became to master these technologies.

Amid the celebration, if there is one point of regret, it is that the Mars Orbiter Satellite — a truly nationalistic mission — does not carry the Indian tri-colour or the flag. This is one inexplicable omission ISRO may regret for a long time to come.

(Pallava Bagla is the co-author of the book Reaching for the Stars: India’s Journey to Mars and Beyond. E-mail: pallava.bagla@gmail.com )

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