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The late beginner advantage

The Mars mission is a technology demonstrator that will be important in planning Isro’s future missions

Written by Ajey Lele | Published: November 12, 2013 10:38:20 pm

The Mars mission is a technology demonstrator that will be important in planning Isro’s future missions

India’s first mission to Mars,named the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM),successfully began its journey to the red planet on November 5. By November 9,the third orbit raising manoeuvre of the MOM was completed. It will take about nine months for the satellite to reach the Mars orbit and begin making its observations. Reaching Mars is very complicated; the success rate has been around only 50 per cent since the first mission in 1960. In Asia,Japan and China have made attempts to reach Mars,without success.

India has the advantages of a late beginner. The Indian mission has been designed after learning from others’ experiences. India is also banking on its past experience with the Moon mission,but reaching Mars is a more formidable challenge. The craft has to travel for around 300 days,encountering radiation,and subsequently its various technical systems,inactive for most of those 300 days,will be expected to perform accurately and its engines will need to fire.

The MOM is expected to improve India’s scientific credentials and knowhow in launching interplanetary probes. Surprisingly,much of the media debate revolved around frivolous issues like the wastage of money and lopsided scientific priorities. The government of India spends 0.34 per cent of its total budget on the space programme,and of that,8 per cent has been used for the Mars mission. There are people who believe that the cost of this mission,around Rs 450 crore and not enough to purchase a single passenger airliner,would have helped resolve the problems of drinking water,sanitation,malnutrition,etc. The MOM cost only about 0.8 per cent of the total budget allotted to science and technology for 2013. Hence,the criticism of “unbalanced priorities” in allocating funds for technology development is not valid. Unfortunately,the electronic media seems to believe every debate should have only two,mutually opposed,sides. Even the scientific debate was conducted in such a way that apples and oranges were compared.

Broadly,the MOM could be classified under two heads: it is a technological mission till the craft establishes itself correctly in the Martian orbit. Then,it becomes a science mission,when the five sensors on board start making observations. The usefulness of undertaking such a mission — only to send a limited number of sensors and that too for an overall payload of only around 15 kg — has been questioned. This criticism is valid to an extent. However,it needs to be appreciated that because of the compulsions of long-distance travel,the best opportunity to undertake the Mars mission comes only after a gap of 26 months.

The rocket used for the MOM launch was the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle). It has been argued that India should have used the GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle),which is capable of carrying more weight and hence more sensors. It is known that the GSLV is still under construction and Isro is struggling with this technology. Hence,Isro’s choice was to make use of the present opportunity with available resources,or to wait until 2016. Asking for outside help to launch a rocket would have been a costly proposal. Moreover,Isro would have lost an opportunity to experiment and learn. So while it has been said that Isro should have waited for the indigenous GSLV technology to mature,it would be incorrect to challenge the decisions of rocket scientists. This mission can be viewed as a technology demonstrator and will be important in planning future missions.

Finally,the geostrategic significance of such a mission should not be ignored. Success would make India the only Asian country to reach Mars. That could be the best advertisement for Isro in attracting a large chunk of the space business. It is not about one-upmanship,but telling the world that we are among the best in space.

Lele,a research fellow at IDSA,Delhi,is author of ‘Mission Mars: India’s Quest for the Red Planet’

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