Mission to Mars Launched

A day after the last of Diwali rockets was fired in this part of the country, "the big one" blasted off from the first launch pad in Sriharikota on Tuesday afternoon, firing the ambition of a nation, and the imagination of many others. About 45 minutes later, whenPSLV-C25 had injected the Mars orbiter spacecraft into an Earth orbit, the first phase of India's first Mars mission was pronounced a success. 

"I am happy to announce that the Mars orbiter mission first phase is a success," said Indian Space Research Organization chairman K Radhakrishnan. About 90 minutes after a drizzle raised minor concerns about weather among lay people, the 44.4m PSLV-C25 carrying in its head India's first Mars orbiter, lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at 2.38pm. 

Drowning the cheers at the mission control, about 7km away, and the nearby media centre, the rocket rose to the sky with a roar, spewing fire and smoke. Soon it disappeared into the clouds, only to re-emerge after a few second to another round of applause.

The nail-biting — albiet expected — phase came soon after the third stage of the rocket burned out, and the blip on the tracking screens disappeared. As Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan had explained earlier, the rocket would be on a coasting phase for almost 25 minutes, 10 minutes of which was a "total blind phase." The mission control witnessed some silent moments during this period. And, when mission director P Kunhikrishnan reported that the first of the two ships in the south Pacific Ocean had tracked the rocket, the scientists' faces lit up.


'Bigger challenges ahead' 

About 35 minutes into the flight, the rocket was cruising at an altitude "slightly higher than the expected trajectory," as a scientist put it. "But it will self-correct its course," he assured. And correct it did, after the fourth-stage engine fired on its own, bringing the rocket back to life. Soon, the orbiter was injected into an elliptical Earth orbit in what Kunhikrishnan called a "precision exercise." What follows in the next 10 days would be six crucial "orbit raising operations," in the wee hours of November 6, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 16. 

And then, at 12.42am on December 1, the orbiter will leave the earth's orbit for a 300-day journeyto the red planet. "It's only the beginning; bigger challenges are ahead," said the Isro chairman. "We expect the orbiter to be in Mar's orbit on September 24, 2014."

 Before India, five nations have launched Mars missions. So, is India trying to be an also-ran? Why is India trying to boldly go where many have gone before? The answers lie in India's rightful ambitions to remain in the select league of space-faring nations, mankind's unending quest for the unknown, and a bit of business.

When uncertainty fuels curiosity

Just because the previous Mars missions did not find anything conclusive about methane or water or other indicators of life doesn't mean that the Indian mission may not find any. Critics had put forth a similar argument when India was preparing for Chandrayaan-1, but the moon mission found something even men who walked on moon could not: moisture in the polar region of moon.

The same logic works here. If the Indian mission finds methane or new patterns of deuterium that suggest early presence of water, it would change the way earthlings see Mars and other planets. "Some say why spend Rs 460 crore on this mission. Such simple economics don't work here. You never know if we may find something that's worth much more than that figure," says Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan.

Uncertainty, as much as curiosity, has been at the core of every scientific exploration. Isro satellites programme director Mylswamy Annadurai calls the Mars orbiter mission a logical progression of the moon mission. "We are relaxed and confident, but then anxiety is a human trait. People who ask what we are going to fi nd would understand that not finding something is also a fi nding, a discovery that something is not there," he said.

Previous missions and groundbased calculations have found methane in Martian atmosphere, but none have been able to conclude if they definitely indicated early life. This is because methane could be of geological as well as biological origin. Whatever the source, finding methane — which one of the five scientific instruments on board the Mars orbiter would try — would add considerably to research on the red planet. The Lyman alpha photometer, meanwhile, would be looking for abundance of deuterium and hydrogen in the Martian upper atmosphere, which are indicators of early possible existence of water.

A point to prove

Will the Mars mission do all this? Nobody knows for sure. The Isro chairman is not apologetic when he says this mission is 85% a technology demonstration and the rest scientific quest. This means that India has to demonstrate — however late it is — its interplanetary mission capabilities to retain its place in the spacefarers' club.

"This is our first step in the field," says Radhakrishnan. "We have to take this step before bigger steps." He adds that only 21 of the 51 missions by the US and Russia/USSR have been successful. "That speaks of how complex the mission is. Getting the orbiter to go around the Mars itself would be a mark of success." Isro is confident of remaining in Mars orbit for about five months.

Money matters

Such missions boost Isro's capabilities and credibility so much so that more nations turn to India for their space missions and collaborations. A successful — or even attempted — Mars mission will boost Isro's image, and Antrix Corporation, the commercial arm of Isro, can well be a money-spinner.

India's Mars mission is a major step forward in exploring the solar system that was completed by Indian scientists in just 15 months, said the euphoric scientific community Tuesday.
India is the first Asian country and the fourth entity after Russia, the US and the European Space Agency (ESA) to leap into interplanetary space with an exploratory mission to Mars, about 400 million km from planet Earth.
Amitabha Ghosh, chairman, Science Operations Working Group - Mission Operations at the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission, said it's a significant milestone for India.
"It is important to develop capability and also try to do something unique and not something done before. The real moment for India will come when it enters into Mars gravitation," Ghosh said.
Renowned space scientist K. Kasturirangan commended the way Indian scientists were able to complete the mission within 15 months of the announcement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"I think first of all given the 15 months' time to take the mission to first level is something unbelievable for space programme of this level... something we all should be proud of," Kasturirangan said.
"It will become an important milestone for India when it completes 300 days and enters Mars orbit," Kasturirangan said.
Mission director P. Kunhikrishnan said: "With the precise injection of the spacecraft in the desired initial orbit, the crucial part of the mission for its long journey to Mars has been achieved. It is the 25th mission of the PSLV rocket."
Professor Yashpal, founding father of ISRO, lauded India's effort to chart its own path by launching the mission and not following others.
"There are a whole lot of programmes going on in the ISRO and the best part is that you are making your own path and not following anyone else's," he said.
Professor U.R. Rao, who had conducted the feasibility study of the Mars mission, said: "It is indeed a great day for India as something that has gone out of our own cradle. I can proudly say India has become mature. I hope we get very good results."
"I was talking to some scientist friends in the US and they told me why Indians are shouting about Rs.500 crore spent on the mission, it is the biggest day for the whole of India."
"Indians can be proud after spending Rs.5,000 crore on Diwali firecrackers, which don't go beyond 10 metres and with Rs.500 crore, we are going to Mars," said Rao, former ISRO chairman.
The spacecraft will enter the Martian orbit in September 2014.
Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre director S. Ramakrishnan said: "It is a historic mission. The PSLV has again proved to be a reliable rocket with a text-book launch, which is the first step."
Mission's authorisation board member M. Chandradatan said: "It is an excellent mission, with the team work of all ISRO centres as it had a very complicated design. We have achieved the first important step in the long mission and getting into the Earth's orbit."
Former Space Commission member Roddam Narasimha from Sriharikota told IANS: "It is a distinct forward step and India is working towards a new horizon in exploring the solar system. We have only seen the first phase of the project and have to wait for over nine months to watch from Earth before the spacecraft reaches the Martian orbit."

In the press conference that followed soon after the Mars orbiter launch, a foreign journalist asked what has now become a routine question: why should India send a mission to Mars when millions are in poverty? Isro chairman K Radhakrishnan told him about the benefits of the space programme, but the journalist persevered. Benefits of the space programme are evident, but not so much the benefits of going to Mars, especially for the poor.

Radhakrishnan then talked about how not going to Mars will make Isro rapidly out-of-date with technology. It is not clear whether all the hundreds of journalists assembled at Sriharikota were entirely satisfied.

The Mars mission is not an isolated mission for the organisation. Isro, or any organisation worth its salt, never plans isolated missions. Every programme feeds into another programme, and technology developed for one mission is used for another. This happens so frequently that it rarely makes sense to focus on individual missions and question their validity. Space technology is as inclusive as any other. The Mars mission will feed into subsequent missions of Isro. For engineers, this fact is as obvious as daylight. However, there are subtleties that are not so obvious to the public, and they need to be stressed.

With the launch of the Mars orbiter, Isro has taken a few step-ups on the complexity ladder of space technology. Learning to handle a complex mission has its spin-offs in every area of life and business.

Isro has yet to master the geostationary launch vehicle and its difficulties, a task that could take several years or even a decade, but it has also to look ahead after the GSLV. Going to the moon or planets bring on a new set of challenges, and the development of a new set of technologies. An organisation that does not develop them will soon fall behind in space technology, no matter how good it becomes on sending satellites into earth orbit.

Even without a geostationary launcher, a class of vehicles all other countries use to send satellites to Mars, this mission was no less complex for Isro than it was for other countries. It is not a trivial fact that two-thirds of all Mars missions have failed. Using a smaller rocket, even when as well-tested like the PSLV, does not make the mission any less sophisticated.

In fact, it has probably made it more complex, as Isro also made it in quick time with very little money. The low energy budget introduced new complexities. The changing weather gave it another dimension.

Alarge vehicle and its satellite together use every kind of technology imaginable. It needs the right configuration of the vehicle. The PSLV is now a mature design, but consistent manufacturing is always a challenge. So is testing. More than anything else, integration is different and difficult for each mission. A small error, only a millimetre's difference in the size of a device, will lead to failure. There is some learning with each new project.

Finally, there is science to reckon with. Isro's mission is primarily a scientific mission. Mars is one of the hottest topics, if not the hottest, in astronomy today. Understanding Mars is key to understanding the Earth, its past and future. Mars may once have had life. Its conditions four billion years ago were good for life. In fact, it may even have seeded the Earth with life. Understanding all this is necessary to design the future Earth. We may one day need to even leave the Earth and live on Mars.

Science does not belong to the rich countries alone. When investing in science, it is hard to pick and choose topics according to utility. No one knows what will be useful.

India, being a large country with a large scientific infrastructure, has an obligation to invest in space science. This is particularly so because Isro's budget is frugal. The entire world can learn from India when it comes to low-cost space engineering. The Mars mission is a drop in the ocean when the total budget of the country is considered. Space has to move on.

Likening India's Mars probe to putting 'a golf ball from Tokyo in a hole in Paris', Chinese experts have termed Manglaayan's launch as "a great achievement" which if successful could make India the first Asian country to achieve this fete.

Indian launch should be interpreted rationally as "a great achievement" of India that also deserves applause from the rest of the world,Ye Hailin, an expert on South Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciencessaid.

"Like the Chinese, Indian people have their space dreams as well. The Mars orbiter, if successful, will increase the human race's store of knowledge and change our life," Ye told state-run China Daily.

Official dailies here front-paged the successful launch of the India's Mars mission, focussing on India taking the lead inMars exploration over China.

Ye also said China and India may work together to explore space instead of being engaged in what was called "aerospace competition".

In his reaction yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said thee outer space is "the common heritage of mankind" and the international community should cooperate to maintain the permanent peace and sustainable development of outer space.

Pang Zhihao, a researcher with the China Academy of Space Technology, said ultimate outcome of the current Indian venture remains to be seen, as the successful launch was only the start of a year-long mission.

"The difficulty of getting the orbiter into orbit around Mars is equal to hitting a golf ball from Tokyo into a hole in Paris," Pang said adding that China is ready to conduct its own exploration of Mars in the near future.

"The carrier rocket Long March 5, with its 25 metric tons of low-Earth orbit carrying capacity and 14 tonnes of geostationary transfer orbit carrying capacity, can fully sustain our own Mars exploration projects," he said.

Jiao Weixin, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Peking Universitytold the daily that "with the mission launched within a very short period, India eyes the political influence hereby brought and intends to be the first one in Asia that orbits Mars."

The Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) on Saturday performed the last of the five orbit-raising manoeuvre on its Mars Orbiter in the early hours, raising the apogee (farthest point from Earth) of the spacecraft to over 1.92 lakh km.
"The fifth orbit-raising manoeuvre of Mars Orbiter Spacecraft, starting at 01:27am (IST).. with a burn time of 243.5 seconds has been successfully completed. The observed change in apogee is from 1,18,642 km to 1,92,874 km," Isrosaid.
In the series of five orbit-raising manoeuvre with a supplementary operation after the fourth one, the space agency had raised the apogee of the spacecraft to over 1.92 lakh km.
After the successful completion of these operations, the Mars Orbiter Mission is expected to take on the "crucial event" of the trans-Mars injection around 12.42am on December 1. It will reach the orbit of the red planet by September 24, 2014 after taking on a voyage of over 10 months.
Isro's PSLV-C25 successfully injected the 1,350-kg 'Mangalyaan' Orbiter (Mars craft) into the orbit around the earth some 44 minutes after a text book launch at 2.38pm from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota on November 5, marking the successful completion of the first stage of the Rs 450 crore mission.