Mars Mission: India’s Tryst with the Red Planet


India’s first ever Mars mission would begin its travel towards the Red planet on November 5 .2013. It would take around nine-months of time for this satellite to reach Mars orbit and start taking the observations. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25) rocket with Mars Orbiter Spacecraft onboard will be launched from Sriharikota (Andhra Pradesh) coast, nearly 50 miles north of Chennai city.


This mission was originally scheduled for takeoff on October 28. However, the launch was postponed due to one the two ships designated to monitor the health and movement of Indian craft could not reach the destination close to Fiji islands in time owing to bad weather in Pacific Ocean.


Reaching Mars is an extremely complicated task. The first attempt to observe Mars from the close vicinity was done by the erstwhile Soviet Union during 1960.  The first six attempts made: five by the USSR and one by the US were failures. The success came on seventh attempt (1964) when the US’s Mariner-4 craft flew closure to Mars and was able to take 21 pictures. Since then many missions have been launched towards Mars but, the success rate has only been around 50%. In Asia, Japan and China have made attempts to reach Mars but without any success. 


India has the advantage of a late beginner. Indian mission has been designed by learning from the experiences of other countries. India also banks on its past experience with the Moon mission. Nevertheless, reaching Mars is still a major challenge. The distance of Moon form Earth is about 400,000 km and the average distance of Mars from the Earth is over 200 times more than this distance. Hence, the basic challenge is to travel such a long distance and then enter the Martian atmosphere. The craft has to travel and navigate for around 300 days encountering unknown challenges of radiation and subsequently its various technical systems which were inactive for 300 days are expected to perform accurately and engines need to fire.


This Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is India's first interplanetary probe and it would be carrying five payloads which are designed for different applications. They are meant for exploration of Mars surface features, study its morphology, mineralogy and also to undertake observations about Martian atmosphere. Also, there is specific sensor designed to study about the presence of Methane on Mars. Various observations by this sensor could indirectly assist to know about possibility of life existence on Mars, either in the past or in present. It is important to note that it would take around 20 minutes of time for any signal sent from Earth to reach to this craft. Hence, this craft cannot be controlled in real time basis from the Earth. To overcome this limitation the craft has been designed in such a fashion that it could take its own decisions. Also, India’s space Research Organisation (ISRO) has made specific arrangements for Deep Space communications and in addition the American space agency (NASA) is expected to assist ISRO in this regard.


Broadly, this mission could be viewed in two parts, it is a technological mission till the time it establishes correctly in the Martian orbit and subsequently it becomes a science mission when it starts taking the observations. There has been some amount of criticism from certain quarters about the efficacy of this mission and a question has been raised that, ‘should a developing country spend money on such missions instead of spending the same money on schemes of social importance’?


The cost of entire Mars mission would be nearly Rs 450 cores which in fact is less than the cost of one passenger airliner aircraft. On an average Air India encounters a loss of Rs 10 cores a day so the cost of mission amounts to one and half month of loss incurred by Air India! Unfortunately, even the suggestion of privatization of Air India is not acceptable to many but a justifiable investment towards the long term development of science and technology in the country often gets criticized unnecessarily.


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 15kg has been criticized even by some from the scientific community. To an extent this criticism is valid. However, it needs to be appreciated that because of the compulsions of a long distance travel the best opportunity to undertake Mars mission becomes available only after a gap of 26 months. Hence, it was important for ISRO to grab this opportunity. The challenge of reaching Mars is so enormous that for planning something big for the future, it is important first to develop a mastery over few technologies hence; this mission could also be viewed as a demonstrator of indigenous technology advancement. This experience would be of considerable importance to plan strategically future missions (next opportunities are available in 2016 and 2018) of ISRO.


Lastly, the geostrategic significance of such mission should not be ignored.  A success with this mission makes India the only Asian country to reach Mars. Such success could also be best the ‘advertisement’ for ISRO to attract a large chunk of space business. Finally, it is not about the one-upmanship with China but telling the entire world that we are amongst the best in the space domain. Prestige for the country is just incidental!

Author Note
Ajey Lele (Ph.D) is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi