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PSLV launch
A PSLX-XL rocket, like the one that launched Chandrayaan-1, India's first lunar mission, in 2008, will be used to launch India's Mars orbiter next November. (credit: ISRO)

India announces a mission to Mars

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After sending a spacecraft to the Moon, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is now dreaming of Mars. On August 3, 2012, the Indian government gave a go-ahead for ISRO to launch a Mars orbiter. This mission is expected to be launched in November 2013 and, after an approximately 300-day voyage, would enter Mars’s orbit in September 2014.

India’s essential aim for this mission is to develop a technological capability to reach Martian orbit.

The Mars orbiter is a spacecraft with an expected mass of 1,350 kilograms, carrying a 25-kilogram scientific payload, which would be placed in an elliptical orbit of 500 by 80,000 kilometers around Mars. India would use its most reliable launch system, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-XL), for this mission. In contrast to NASA’s large, complex Curiosity rover, India’s first attempt towards exploring Mars appears to be a simplistic and basic mission, one that appears to be more of a learning platform for future missions, perhaps eventually leading to a human mission to Mars. India definitely understands that any successful human mission to Mars would be an ultimate dream mission for any major spacefaring nation, but appears to be in no big hurry and has not demonstrated any “burning ambition” for a human mission.

Although studying Mars by sending spacecraft there has been in progress since 1964, when NASA launched the first successful flyby mission (Mariner 4) to Mars, Mars still remains much of a mystery. India understands that the success rate of Mars missions is only about 50 percent globally. India must learn lessons from the failures of various earlier Mars missions before designing its first mission. India’s essential aim for this mission is to develop a technological capability to reach Martian orbit.

The forte of India’s entire space program is its cost effectiveness. The Mars mission is expected to cost 450 crores rupees (approximately $90 million; one crore is ten million). It is interesting to note that India’s first Moon mission, Chandrayaan 1 in 2008, had a similar cost.

India’s primary focus for the mission is essentially its inquisitiveness about Mars. The spacecraft will take observations to try and learn more about the climate, terrain, topography, and evolution of the Red Planet, as well as any clues about past or present life there, although the spacecraft’s small payload will limit the science it can perform. The heart of any deep space mission is its communication/telemetry network. Several years ago, India’s Deep Space Network (IDSN) was specifically designed and built for its Moon mission, and it’s expected that the same network would be modified further for the Mars mission too. It has also been reported that two ship-borne transportable terminals will be deployed in the Pacific Ocean during the launch phase of the flight.

Knowing the complexities involved with a Mars mission, ISRO should not be overambitious about the lifespan of this mission.

Even though the official approval for India’s mission has come just this month, the budgetary provisions were already included in the Union Budget of 2011–2012 and mission preparations had begun. Nonetheless, with the mission’s launch planned for November 2013, there is very little time left for completing all the arrangements. This is going to be a real challenge for ISRO, but it has very little option in this regard: if they miss the November 2013 window then the next chance available would be only around the year 2016 or 2018.

Various scientific payloads have been shortlisted by ISRO's Advisory Committee for Space Sciences (ADCOS) review committee. Also, the baseline solar array and reflector configuration of the satellite has been finalized. Various details about the exact nature of scientific payloads are yet to be announced, though. Also, it is not known whether the entire scientific payload would be from India or ISRO is making the platform available for other countries to send their payloads, as was done during the Moon mission.

ISRO has much to learn from its Moon mission experience. This has been regarded as one of the major successes of ISRO’s space program. This mission was also successful in identifying the presence of water on the Moon’s surface. However, it needs to be emphasized that this mission was successful only in fulfilling its primary objectives. The mission’s designed life was for two years, however, after 312 days, communication with the spacecraft was lost and ISRO was not able to reestablish it. This probably happed because of an overheating power supply. There is a need for ISRO to learn from this experience. Knowing the complexities involved with a Mars mission, they should not be overambitious about the lifespan of the mission.

Apart from finding about the existence of water and life on Mars, India would be also keen to understand the mineral composition of the Martian surface. Mining of resources on Mars is not an idea whose time has come, but some initial steps need to be taken at this point in time for the benefit of future generations. Indian efforts should be seen as an attempt to understand the complexities involved by making an initial small step.

Now, the time has come for the Asian space giants of Japan, China, and India to join hands together, and missions like the exploration of Mars presents one particular good opportunity to do so.

As per earlier plans, India was to undertake its second Moon mission (Chandrayaan 2) around 2013, but those plans have been postponed (probably until 2014–15) because the nearest window available for a Mars mission falls during November 2013. Also, India’s problems in the development of cryogenic launch vehicle technology is becoming a major impediment in its progress and is affecting the Moon mission. Within one to two years India should be able to successfully test its cryogenic upper stage technology, which eventually could provide a major boost to its space agenda.

In Asia, all three major space powers—China, Japan, and India—have interest in Mars missions. Japan attempted a Mars mission during 1998–2003 but the spacecraft failed to enter Mars orbit and was lost. Subsequently, Japan has not announced any other major plans for visiting Mars even though they have an agenda of visiting other planets. China’s first planetary mission, the Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter, failed along with its host spacecraft, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt. All this puts an additional burden on India to succeed.

Deep space missions are complex and challenging tasks. Such missions could bring in major benefits to the coming generations. Outer space is one area where it is futile for a single country to undertake complicated missions independently because of the financial and technological difficulties. Today, former Cold War rivals Russia and the US are working jointly in space. Now, the time has come for the Asian space giants of Japan, China, and India to join hands together, and missions like the exploration of Mars presents one particular good opportunity to do so.