The launch of India's first mission to Mars is a showcase for the nation's space program, which has high ambitions for its creative blend of scientific ingenuity and frugal engineering.
If India's first interplanetary mission succeeds in completing the 400-million-km (248-million-mi.) journey in the next 300 days, it will make India the first Asian country and the fourth in the world to conduct a mission to the red planet, a feat that would provide India a foothold in the race for the growing commercial space market.
The 1,350-kg (3,000-lb.) Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), called Mangalyaan, set off on its 11-month odyssey to find methane, an indicator of life on Mars, with five scientific payloads. India's indigenous workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) proved its value on its 25th mission, sending Mangalyaan into orbit.
The mission's textbook launch comes a fortnight ahead of the liftoff of the U.S. Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (Maven), which will try to find out how Mars evolved from a warmer, wetter world into the barren planet of today (AW&ST Aug. 26, p. 40). Both missions are scheduled to insert into the Martian orbit on Sept. 21, 2014.
For India, the mission's budget price of $80 million is a point of pride. Maven's total cost will be $671 million, including constructing the spacecraft and paying for the Atlas V launcher and a year of operations on Mars. The U.S.'s 2011 “Curiosity” mission to the planet cost $2.5 billion.
“If India can make the world's cheapest car [the approximately $1,620 Nano car from Tata Motors] and the world's cheapest tablet [Akash, costing about $50], launching the cheapest Mars mission is no big deal,” quips an Indian space scientist.
The low cost is also essential given that India's space exploration budget is a tiny fraction of its $1.1 billion space budget. In contrast,plans to spend $17.7 billion in fiscal 2013.
“This is our modest beginning for our interplanetary mission,” says Deviprasad Karnik, spokesman for the state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
Though limited in scope, MOM will help India develop the technologies required for design, planning, management and operations of interplanetary travel.
Withand other foreign space agencies increasingly looking to outsource space missions and rein in profligacy, India's emphasis on low costs positions it to capture commercial success in the $304 billion global space market, analysts say.
Susmita Mohanty, founder and CEO of Earth2Orbit, India's first private space startup, says Indian companies can leverage ISRO's portfolio of space products and services, exploit the satellite service market and become competitive in the global marketplace. ISRO is already looking to secure satellite launch contracts from several countries, including Germany, Canada, France and Indonesia.
Mayank Vahia, scientist at Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, says the Mars mission “is part of India's space exploration program that will improve its scientific credentials and know-how in launching interplanetary probes.”
The Mars mission could lead to significant international collaborations and debunk the view that India is competing with China, analysts note.
Despite the optimism about India's Mars mission, reaching the red planet would be a feat in itself. No nation has succeeded a journey to Mars in its first attempt, and more than half the world's attempts to reach Mars have come to naught, including missions by Japan in 1999 and China in 2011. The next attempt to find and map methane will be made with the European ExoMars mission scheduled for 2016.
The high historical failure rate argues for continued development, points out Amitabha Ghosh, the head of science operations for the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission. “A long and thorough developmental schedule would have ensured the necessary engineering rigor to maximize the chance of a successful mission,” he says.
It is possible that Mangalyaan has been in development for much longer than is officially acknowledged. But if the development time actually was the 15 months announced, serious technology risks and mission failure could result, Ghosh warns.
“Launch windows to Mars occur once every two years. If the developmental schedule was hastened to catch the launch window, it could be a severe misjudgment. It might have been worthwhile to extend the development schedule and wait for the next launch window in 2015,” Ghosh says.
ISRO Chief K. Radhakrishnan sees it differently. “The 2016 opportunity is not as energy efficient as a November 2013 launch,” he says. “Because of the geometrics involved, 2016 would be costlier. We have availed the best available opportunity; that is November 2013.” He brushes aside the repeated failures of other nations.
“The ISRO team will fulfill the expectations that the nation has in them,” Radhakrishnan says. “The journey has only begun. The challenging phase is coming.”
Mangalyaan's next major test will be on Dec. 1, when the spacecraft begins the journey to Mars, with its trans-Martian injection. It reaches another milestone in September 2014, when it will be injected into Mars orbit.
“These things we are doing for the first time,” Radhakrishnan notes. “We have to calculate that at the given time, at the given velocity, what position the spacecraft will be in when it reaches Mars after 300 days.”
A key challenge facing the ISRO scientists is ensuring that the probe's main engine operates as planned after remaining idle for so many months in the icy coldness of space.
Engineers have ensured the efficiency of the liquid-apogee engine after more than 10 months from its first phase of activity in November 2013.
Only after Mangalyaan enters the elliptical orbit of Mars will the onboard instruments perform their assessment work.
MOM carries just a 15-kg scientific payload, comprising three instrument packages with a total of five instruments: the Lyman Alpha Photometer, Methane Sensor for Mars, Mars Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer (Menca), Mars Color Camera (MCC) and Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (TIS). While a photometer and methane sensor would help in atmospheric studies, Menca is intended to focus on studying the particle environment. MCC and TIS aim to contribute to studying the surface imaging.
“Because of its limited instrument payload and mapping orbit, Mangalyaan is unlikely to add to the breadth or quality of data generated by other Mars missions,” Ghosh says.
NASA's Curiosity Rover was not able to find methane in the parts-per-million range on the surface of the planet—the upper limit for methane abundance is 1.3 parts per billion.
“This dims the hope that Mangalyaan will be able to detect it,” Ghosh notes. “The presence or absence of a methane signature from orbit is not definitive evidence for the presence or absence of Martian life,” he adds. But should the Indian probe provide a positive result, it could revitalize the quest for Martian methane.
In addition, a picture-perfect mission would represent a major feat for India's low-cost space program, positioning the emerging Asian giant as a budget player in the intensifying global space race. Meanwhile, given the high failure rate of Mars missions, ISRO scientists will have their fingers crossed and a prayer on their lips.