By Harshmeet Singh
“History has been created today, we have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible,” said the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he witnessed ISRO’s Mangalyaan enter the Mars’ orbit on 24th September 2014.
The unprecedented success of the Mars Orbiter Mission made India the first country to undertake a successful mars mission in its very first attempt. With the Mangalyaan mission scheduled to end on March 24th, it would be worth taking a trip down the memory lane and revisiting the major accomplishments of our MoM.
How superior was the Mangalyaan?
Ever since Mangalyaan entered the Mars orbit, there have been innumerable comparisons with similar missions undertaken by other space agencies (mostly because we seem to be on the winning side in most aspects!). The most famous (and enjoyable) of these comparisons is that at Rs 7 per km, the entire mission’s cost was less than the total budget of Hollywood movie ‘Gravity’. The Mangalyaan took close to 298 days to reach the Mars orbit, suggesting at it wasn’t the fastest spacecraft to do so since European Space Agency’s Mars mission in 2003 took about 210 days to reach Mars.
Considering that the road to Mars has been marred with failures, Mangalyaan’s maiden success looks all the more impressive. Of the 51 mars mission attempts made so far by different countries, only 21 have been completely successful. The failed missions include the first attempts made by the USA, China, Japan and Russia.
Japan’s maiden attempt to reach Mars in 1998, Nozomi orbiter, failed to enter the Mars orbit owing to some electrical fault. One of the more famous failures in the Mars mission happened with NASA when its Mars Climate Orbiter converted into flames in the Mars atmosphere after a terrible confusion between the metric and the standard units. In 2011, China and Russia teamed up to send China’s Yinghuo-1 and Russia’s Phobos-Grunt to Mars on a Russian rocket. Both the spacecrafts didn’t succeed in leaving the Earth’s orbit.
Low cost! But how?
By far, the most impressive aspect of the Mangalyaan mission has been its low cost. It has often been compared to the exorbitant costs of MAVEN, NASA’s mars mission which entered the Mars orbit three days before the Mangalyaan. One of the major reasons behind Mangalyaan’s low costs as compared to MAVEN was the use of smaller rockets, made possible due to a much lighter scientific payload as compared to MAVEN (Mangalyaan’s pay load was close to 33 pounds as compared to MAVEN’s 143 pounds). The fast pace of work (just about 1 year) also added to low costs of the mission undertaken by ISRO. One of the major differentiating cost factors between the two missions is the much lower salaries paid to the ISRO engineers as compared to the specialists at NASA. ISRO’s annual budget is close to $1.2 billion as compared to NASA’s $17.7 billion, ESA’s $5.6 billion, Russia’s $7.9 billion and China’s $2.5 billion.
But the low cost of the mission also brought with it a number of constraints. For starters, it put a considerable limit on the number of scientific instruments it can carry into the Mars orbit. This is why ISRO chose a highly elliptical orbit for the spacecraft since it would require much lesser fuel. On the brighter side, ISRO is now ready with a new crop of rockets which are equipped with the capability of sending much heavier loads into the space in the future.
And along came the criticism too
Soon after ISRO launched the Mangalyaan in 2013, a number of experts took shot at the agency, questioning the need for such a mission. One of the most widely raised points was that since close to one fifth of India’s population still lacks basic amenities, wouldn’t this money have been better spent on their basic needs? Also, since NASA’s curiosity rover had already concluded that Mars’ environment doesn’t contain methane, what was the need of sending another Methane sensor onboard the Mangalyaan?
ISRO, on the other hand, maintained that it didn’t ask for any special grants for the mission and managed everything from within its annual budget. And if welfare schemes worth billions aren’t able to improve the conditions of poor, an additional $74 million wouldn’t have made any difference either.
The timings of the launch also came under scanner from different sections. A number of experts said that since ISRO’s erstwhile chief K Radhakrishnan was due to retire at the end of 2014, he forced the agency to undertake the mission at this time to attain personal glory. Had ISRO waited for a couple of years, it would have been able to use much superior rockets to launch the Mangalyaan, thus enabling it to carry heavier scientific instruments.
China’s failed Yinghuo-1 mission in 2011 is also believed to have been a major reason for ISRO’s urgency in undertaking the Mars Orbiter mission in 2013. Beating China in the race to Mars was enough inspiration for ISRO to take the plunge in haste. China, in fact, lauded it as the ‘Pride of Asia’ after the Mangalyaan entered the Mars orbit successfully.
ISRO maintained that it would easily recover the cost of the project through its commercial arm, Antrix. Since the success of Mangalyaan did wonders for the global reputation of ISRO, it expects to gain a number of contracts from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America to help them with their launch vehicles. Antrix currently makes over 100 crore with outsourced contracts.
ISRO has always been critical of the stand held by many critics who say the Space research is a waste on time. But it is this space research and satellite technology that helps forecast devastating cyclones and save thousands of lives.
Mangalyaan 2 coming soon
Riding on the success of its maiden mission to Mars, ISRO is all set to launch Mangalyaan 2 in 2018. S. Shiva Kumar, ISRO’s satellite centre director recently said “We plan to launch a second mission to Mars in 2018, probably with a lander and rover, to conduct more experiments for which we have to develop new technologies. We will be able to take the Mars-2 mission after launching the second mission to the moon (Chandrayaan-2) in 2016 with our own lander and rover, which will help us develop a separate lander and rover for the red planet”
With ISRO’s confidence flying high, India can only look forward to much more glory in the coming years.