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 Today - - TECHNOLOGY - By Pallava Bagla

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


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)



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