NEXT STOP MARS
India’s maiden mission to the Red Planet is scheduled for a lift off on October 28. The probe could solve one of the most enduring mysteries: Is life possible on Mars?
India’s Martian baby will soon embark on the country’s most ambitious space journey some 200 million kilometres away. The dreams of a billion-plus people will ride on a 1,350 kg satellite which will head for Mars as early as October 28, from India’s spaceport at Sriharikota in coastal Andhra Pradesh. A space mission which aims for Mars has national pride written all over it.
The first official announcement that India was heading to Mars came in 2012 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his Independence Day speech, said, “Mangalyaan will be a big step in
the area of science and technology.” Since then, in a record-breaking 15 months, the Indian Space Research Organisation ( ISRO) has developed a satellite from scratch. The space agency calls it the Mars Orbiter Mission, an unmanned satellite that has been conceived, designed and fabricated by Indian scientists and will be hoisted using an Indian rocket from Indian soil. The cost of the maiden Mars mission is Rs 450 crore and over 500 scientists have worked to develop it from start.
The Indian satellite is also carrying with it five India-made instruments weighing about 15 kg that will sample the thin Martian atmosphere about which we know so little. The global scientific community is excited about India’s effort to send the first dedicated methane gas sensor to Mars. The presence of methane gas is one of the clinching signs of the presence of carbonbased life forms. India’s Mangalyaan will ‘unambiguously’ prove the presence or absence of methane on Mars, asserts M. Annadurai, the programme manager at ISRO for India’s mars mission. Bruce M. Jakosky, principal investigator for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission ( MAVEN) mission, says, “I will be excited to see the first credible measurements of methane made from Mars orbit.”
So in a way, without even landing on Mars, India hopes to provide an an- swer to that big question—Are we alone in this universe? A sophisticated camera will also take colour photos of the Red Planet, while another experiment will try to decipher how Mars continuously gets stripped of its thin atmosphere. This is important to understand if Mars can ever be colonised by humans. In a surprising planetary coincidence, a recently discovered comet named Siding Spring is likely to pass close to Mars in 2014 and there is every possibility that Mangalyaan could sail through the tail of the comet, giving it a rare opportunity to be present at the right place at the right time.
K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of ISRO, says the Indian Mars mission is really a “technology demonstrator”, showcasing to the world that India can also undertake “interplanetary leaps”. Till date, only Russia, Japan, China, USA and the European Space Agency have even attempted space travel to Mars, of which only the latter two have succeeded. Since 1960, 45 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 be the second nation in the world to have done it all on its own. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden en- dorsed India’s maiden mission to Mars by saying, “It’s always exciting to have as many countries as possible, participating in exploration efforts, particularly Mars. We’re providing support through communications and data transmission. We are in partnership.”
Many 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. While China has beaten India in almost every aspect in space, conducting its manned mission in 2003. Even
IF INDIA DOES MAKE IT TO MARS, IT WOULD BE THE SECOND NATION IN THE WORLD TO HAVE DONE IT ALL ON ITS OWN.
its mission to the moon came before India. Yet, Mars could be the space event where India could possibly take a lead. 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. ISRO chairman says, “We are not racing with anybody and the Indian Mars mission has its own relevance”, but admits there is an element of “national pride” involved with the mission.
Subbian Arunan, a 50-year old mechanical engineer, who heads the team that has made the Mangalyaan, says that in the last 15 months he has slept most nights at the satellite centre. Arunan also gives a more rational scientific reason for this rush, emphasising that Mars offers a launch opportunity only every 26 months. This is a window wherein you can catch up with the Red Planet even when using a low-powered launcher like the PSLV. Arunan says ‘planetary juxtaposition’ was the real driver for this 100-metre dash for what would really be India’s longest sojourn, lasting more than 10 months. If the launch window of 2013 were lost, the next opportunity would only come up in 2016, so Arunan and his team worked on most holidays to
meet the stiff deadline.
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. The satellite will revolve around Earth for a month and using the onboard rocket motor and 852 kg of fuel stored, enough velocity will be imparted so that in November it can begin its over 200-million kilometre journey, becoming the first Indian spacecraft to escape from Earth’s influence.
India’s workhorse rocket PSLV, in its 25th launch, will send it into space. The
PSLV rocket stands 44 metres tall or as high as a seven-storey building that weighs nearly 300 tons, about the same weight as a fully-loaded 747 Jumbo Jet. For 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 the satellite nears Mars after its nine-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 six months.
According to ISRO, one of the biggest challenges of the mission will be to communicate with the spacecraft when it is 200-400 million kilometres away. Twenty minutes will be the minimum lead time for a one-way communication between Bangalore and the satellite. At Byalalu, off Bangalore, a giant dish antenna has been erected especially for this. Two-way communication between the satellite and the control centre will have a minimum delay of 40 minutes. The spacecraft travelling at nearly 9,000 km per hour (the average speed of an aeroplane is 700 km/hr) could easily get lost if an error occurs. To avoid such a mishap, the space agency has installed four on-board computers that provide extensive autonomy to the satellite.
So is this a giant leap or a foolhardy step by a nation that still can’t provide electricity to 400 million people and where 600 million people still defecate in the open? It all depends on which side of the divide you belong. Development economist Jean Drèze told a newspaper, “It seems to be part of the Indian elite’s delusional quest for superpower status.” Others like India’s moon hero G. Madhavan Nair, former chairman of
ISRO, who piloted India’s maiden mission to the moon Chandryaan-1 in 2008, dismisses it as a “national waste” suggesting it is hardly a scientific mission. Dismissing such arguments, Radhakrishnan says: “India is now demonstrating its capability to undertake interplanetary travel with end-to-end technological prowess in space.” For now, we can only wait and watch.
(Pallava Bagla is author of the book Destination Moon: India’s Quest for Moon, Mars and Beyond)
MARS, MANGALYAAN, ATTHE ISRO SATELLITE CENTRE IN BANGALORE