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Understanding India's ambitious Mars adventure

Scientists say country's Mars mission to look for life on the Red Planet, is a historical necessity.

Last Modified: 05 Nov 2013 11:45
Pallava Bagla

Pallava Bagla is an author and a science and technology journalist.
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The spacecraft "Mangalyaan" is expected to traverse 200 million kilometers [AP]

It was a dramatic first look. Mesmerised by its smallness, I took in India's Martian baby, golden-wrapped and being pampered day and night by a team of over 500 technologists at a highly secured facility, as India aimed for the Red Planet.

To reach "Mangalyaan" - the spacecraft - I crossed four layers of security, surrendered all electronic items, put special clothes on and passed through a blast of high-speed air that knocked off all the dust. I then stepped into a giant hall where finishing touches were being given to India's space craft that blasted off towards distant Mars on Tuesday.

The size of a 'Tata Nano' car, it was hard to believe that it could ever navigate 200 million kilometers. 

The dreams of a billion plus people ride on the small 1350kg satellite which took off from India's space port at Sriharikota in coastal Andhra Pradesh. The space mission has national pride written all over it, fulled by a deep desire by India to become the first Asian nation to orbit Mars.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) prefers to call it the Mars Orbiter Mission, an unmanned satellite that has been conceived, designed and fabricated by Indian scientists, hoisted using an Indian rocket from Indian soil. The cost of the entire maiden Mars mission is about Rs 450 crores ($72.9m) and about 500 scientists have toiled to fabricate it from scratch. ISRO's annual budget is about $1bn.

'Technology demonstrator'

K Radhakrishnan, the chairman of ISRO, says this Indian mars mission is really a, "technology demonstrator", essentially show-casing to the world that India can also undertake "interplanetary leaps".

Till date only Japan, China, Russia, USA and the European Space Agency have even attempted space travel to Mars: of these only the latter three have succeeded. Since 1960 some 51 missions have been launched, about a third of which have ended in disaster, the most recent being the Chinese failure in 2011.

If India does make it to Mars, it would really only be the third nation in the world to have done it all on its own after the US and Russia. The space consortium or the European Space Agency has also reached Mars.

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The tiny Indian satellite is also carrying with it five Indian-made instruments weighing about 15kg that will sample the thin Martian atmosphere about which we know so little. The global scientific community is very excited about India's effort to send the first dedicated methane gas sensor to Mars.

The presence of Methane gas, also called "marsh gas", on Earth is one clinching sign of the presence of carbon-based life forms. So in a way without even landing on Mars India hopes to provide an answer to that big question - "are we alone in this universe?"

The first official announcement that India was heading to Mars came in 2012 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his Independence Day speech delivered from the ramparts of the 17th century Red Fort in New Delhi gave a clarion call while also christening it, and said "Mangalyaan will be a big step in science technology". Since then, in a record-breaking 15 months, the ISRO has fabricated a satellite from scratch, the least time the organisation has ever taken for such a task.

Inter-planetary race

Both geo-political and planetary configurations have played on the minds of Indian policy makers who took the Martian plunge. S K Shivakumar, director of the ISRO satellite centre in Bangalore, admits the making of the Mars satellite was indeed "fast tracked". So some suggest this is the start of a 21st Century Asian space race where India and China - the two regional rivals - are locked in a modern day inter-planetary marathon. Japan the third aspirant to reach Mars is also jogging alongside, whose 1998 maiden effort using a satellite called Nozomi, failed.

We are not racing with anybody and the Indian Mars mission has its own relevance

K Radhakrishnan, Chairman of ISRO

While China has beaten India in almost every aspect in space, conducting ahead of New Delhi its manned mission in 2003 and even its mission to the moon which came before India's. Yet, Mars could be the space event where India could possibly take a lead.

In a turn of events, in November 2011, the maiden Chinese orbitter to Mars called Yinghuo-1 being piggy-backed on Russian satellite Phobos Grunt ended in disaster, after it failed to be boosted into space. This now gave India an opportunity to possibly march ahead of its traditional Asian rival. What lends weight to this argument is that the current Mars orbitter configured by India is really a hurriedly assembled satellite, being sent up using India's smaller rocket, the PSLV, while the preferred rocket really was the heavy lift Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.

Radhakrishnan says: "We are not racing with anybody and the Indian Mars mission has its own relevance." He, however, admits there is an element of "national pride" involved with the mission.

India's venture to the Red Planet will have an unconventional start since the PSLV can't provide enough thrust to send Mangalyaan on a direct path to Mars. Instead, the satellite will revolve around Earth for a month and using the satellites on-board rocket motor and 852kg of fuel stored on the satellite, enough velocity will be imparted so that in November it can begin its over 200 million kilometre journey becoming the first Indian space craft to escape from Earth's influence.

'Historical necessity'

India's workhorse rocket in its 25th launch will send it into space. The PSLV rocket stands about 44 metres tall or as high as 15-storey building that weighs nearly 320 tonnes, about the same weight as a fully loaded 747 Jumbo Jet. For the the first time India has deployed two special ships that will be located in the Pacific Ocean to monitor the health of the rocket.

When it nears Mars after its long 9 month long journey in a tricky manoeuvre the Mangalyaan will be slowed down so that it can be captured by the gravity of Mars. Once that is done it will revolve in a highly elliptical orbit and study Mars for about 6 months.

So is this a giant leap or a fool hardy step by a nation that still can't provide electricity to 400 million of its population and where 600 million people still defecate in the open? It all depends on which side of the divide you belong.

India's moon hero G Madhavan Nair, the former chairman of ISRO who piloted in 2008 India's maiden mission to the moon Chandryaan-1 but who lately had a bruising spat with ISRO, dismisses it as a 'national waste' suggesting it is hardly a scientific mission.

Dismissing such arguments Radhakrishnan, said: "This Mars mission is a historical necessity, after having helped find water on the moon, looking for signatures of life on Mars is a natural progression. India is now demonstrating its capability to undertake inter-planetary travel with end-to-end technological prowess in space".

Pallava Bagla is the author of the book "Destination Moon: India's Quest for Moon, Mars and Beyond". 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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