After MOM's rendezvous with Mars, let the next mission begin!
Mars, the red planet in our solar system, today welcomed a robotic pal when Mangalyaan entered the Martian orbit. Four other orbiters, three from NASA and one from European Space Agency, are already giving the planet good company. Five is a crowd, you would say but for India’s Mangalyaan, it is as exclusive as it can get. After a 10-month-long journey, India’s first interplanetary spacecraft created history by its precision, cost effectiveness and swift planning.
Over next six months the five instruments will make several observations. Whatever the scientific results its payloads get, Mangalyaan in entering the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt has proved much about ISRO’s ingenuity and capability. While all space missions are executed with utmost precision, ISRO’s earlier missions allowed it to repeat a few operations in the next orbit but in Mars mission they had to get everything right in the first and only instance or else the spacecraft would have gone to some undesired orbit.
There have been many firsts for ISRO in the Mars Orbiter Mission: It’s India’s first deep space mission. If Chandrayaan was the last mission to catch the nation’s fancy, then it’s good to recall that it travelled merely 400,000 km; Mangalyaan has travelled 680 million km. India’s most trusted and used rocket was designed to use a new propulsion system to travel so far, first time again when any rocket launching low-earth orbit satellites was tweaked to launch a satellite in deep space. That’s PSLV’s versatility. Expect ISRO to reap its commercial rewards as well.
It was also the first time ISRO has built a lot of autonomy into the control system so that the spacecraft takes its own decisions during the journey and in the orbit, independent of ground stations.
This mission also tested ISRO ambitious Deep Space Network that it has built in Bylalu near Bangalore, placing it side by with the Networks in Spain, Camberra and Goddard, US, which assisted Mangalyaan. Now Bylalu stands shoulder to shoulder with any other deep space network in the world and can participate in international monitoring exercises.
Much has been made of the cost effective nature of Mangalyaan, especially compared to its robotic buddy, NASA’s MAVEN, which reached the Martian orbit four days ago. If we get into the sophistication of the instruments, then we are not comparing apple to apple. But this mission is lot more about other technical capabilities that ISRO has built and demonstrated, the soft power it’d exude in the volatile and complex geopolitical arena, and less about how much it cost ISRO, just 5% of its annual budget of $1.3 billion and a tenth of what it cost NASA to launch MAVEN.
The fact that Mangalyaan will contribute to cracking the age-old mystery of the origin of life is significant enough. For years researchers have tried to figure where did life in the solar system originate. Did the water come from ice that was ionized by the sun as planets formed around it or did it originate in the molecular cloud which was formed before the sun came into existence? In the case of Mars, previous missions have shown evidence of water channels, especially towards the south of the Martian equator. But it is not understood what happened to the surface water. Why and how did Mars become totally dry?
NASA’s Curiosity has shown traces of fundamental building blocks of life — oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and sulphur. But it is not understood why and how did its atmosphere disappear. Today it consists of just 0.7 % of earth’s atmosphere, and that too mostly carbon dioxide.
ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan told me earlier that while no compromise has been made in selecting or carrying instruments this time, in future bigger and most complex payloads exploring deeper scientific questions can be designed. A Mars mission opportunity comes once in 26 months. With its astounding success, let ISRO and India plan a more ambitious mission for 2016 or 2018.
As I’ve said earlier, ISRO’s recent missions have already energized a generation and students are once again looking beyond IT and MBA to seek a career in space science and technology. Firing up a nation’s imagination is no less important milestone for any agency.
Watching Mangalyaan orbit Mars, I hope in India, which is fast emerging as the second “Start-up Nation” (after Israel), some rich and successful businessmen get inspired to fund a few blue-blooded space start-ups. Not the services clones, but those starry-eyed young engineers who want to build new technologies for future space programmes, maybe new batteries or energy storage capabilities, better communication and technologies, better designs that make components more amenable to 3D printing, etc. Let us think big and bold!
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