India’s giant interplanetary leap to Mars

India’s space agency on cusp of making history as its Mars mission, world’s cheapest, is all set to

The lift-off of Mangalyaan on November 5, 2013, was the beginning of the journey to Mars [Courtesy ISRO]

The longest journey India has ever undertaken is reaching Mars. After more than 300 days, the country’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is within striking distance of making big global history.

On the morning of September 24, the Indian space programme will make its much-awaited tryst with the Earth’s red neighbour, Mars, with a spacecraft the size of a Tata Nano car, and lovingly called “Mangalyaan” or Mars Craft.

The 1,350kg unmanned robotic satellite will first be slowed down in a tricky manoeuvre to get it caught in the orbit of Mars, a wee bit slower and it would crash-land on the surface of Mars, a wee bit faster and it would miss the red planet to be lost in outer space forever.

The success rate of such complex missions is less than 50 percent and even the US and Russia did not succeed in their maiden attempts.

“India will become the first Asian country to have achieved this and if it happens in the maiden attempt itself, India could become the first country in the world to have reached distant Mars under its own steam in the first attempt,” K Radhakrishnan, the head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), said.

This is undisputedly a shining moment in the space exploration history of a country otherwise beset with developmental challenges. Over half a century, the Indian space programme has managed many feats, but none as dramatic as taking an inter-planetary leap, which is what MOM has accomplished.

Partly in keeping with the Asian space race, MOM was conceptualised, planned and implemented by the ISRO in the spirit of a 100m dash and sticking diligently to a shoestring budget of Rs 450 crores or about $74m; a figure that has surprised many across the world, and prompted the country’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to suggest that “the Hollywood movie Gravity cost more than our Mars mission – this is a great achievement”.

Cheapest inter-planetary mission

Perhaps the world’s cheapest inter-planetary mission, MOM was a tense, 15-month rollercoaster for the more than 500 engineers and scientists involved. Most global missions take over a decade to execute and cost a lot more, the current and ongoing mission to Mars by NASA called MAVEN has cost around $670m.

Without doubt, the geopolitics is significant too, with the timing helping India race ahead of China in trying to get to Earth’s alluring neighbour. National pride is always a driver for such missions. The journey that began from the Red Fort in old New Delhi to the red planet will help India tell the world it is a space power to reckon with.

Pallava Bagla has been following the development of the spacecraft [Courtesy of Pallava Bagla]

Launched from India’s spaceport of Sriharikota along the eastern coast about 100km north of the southern city of Chennai in November 2013, Mangalyaan was first publicly announced by former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on August 15, 2012.

This was not an easy decision to take, given the incredible complexities and challenges of inter-planetary missions – the distance, the orbital aerobics, the unknown Martian environment.

In 54 years, the world has mounted almost as many missions to Mars. Since 1960, the world has seen several space missions launched to the red planet, but more than half of these have been failures. The journey is risky and Mars has traditionally been an unfriendly environment for visits by earthly machines!

And no nation – apart from the Mars Express mission, Europe’s maiden venture to Mars representing a consortium of 20 countries of the European Space Agency – has succeeded in its maiden venture.

MOM, obviously became a trial of ISRO’s technological knack for a long journey out beyond the Earth’s gravitational field for the first time. That said, it was always to be more than just that: MOM attempts to also probe some scientific questions, including the most tantalising one of whether we are indeed alone in the universe.

International cutting edge

The satellite, as space agency chief Radhakrishnan says, is really a “technology demonstrator” and it will morph into a truly scientific mission when in the Martian orbit as it carries some sophisticated equipment. The Mars Colour Camera is the “eye of the mission”, meant to capture images and information about the surface features and composition of the Mars, and tell the Indian taxpayer it was money well spent. The Methane Sensor for Mars will measure methane, and if it is found on Mars, the question about the possibility of life on the red planet becomes more exciting.

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 of the clinching signs 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 Mangalyaan was hoisted using the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on its 24th consecutively successful mission. The rocket itself was about the same weight – 320 tonnes – as a fully loaded Boeing Jumbo Jet or 50 fully grown elephants, and as tall as a 15 storey building.

ISRO’s golden wishes for the future include other inter-planetary missions like the Mars mission: a second moon mission, Chandrayaan-2, that hopes to land a rover on the moon’s surface possibly in 2017; a flight to the Sun and the ambition of putting Indians out in space through the Human Spaceflight Programme.

When Modi spoke of the Indian space programme, he said: “This is one domain in which we are at the international cutting edge. A domain in which we have pushed beyond mediocrity to achieve excellence.”

In the next few weeks, ISRO will test India’s most heavy weight rocket to date, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III, and fly a dummy crew module that can carry up to three astronauts in space. ISRO is going boldly where angels fear to tread, transforming India from a land of snake charmers to a much sought after sophisticated technological powerhouse.