September 23, 2014

India Mission to Mars: Ready to Orbit

Ajey Lele

September 20, 2014

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its maiden mission to Mars – the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – on November 5, 2013. This mission is expected to reach the 'Red Planet' on September 24, 2014 after a ten month long space journey. Currently, the MOM is travelling at a speed of 22 km/second. After reaching close vicinity of Mars, this speed needs to be reduced significantly to make a correct entry into the planet's orbit. The biggest challenge of this mission will be faced by the on September 24, when the on-board liquid engine would require restarting. This engine has been in sleep mode since December 1, 2013. The challenge is significant because there is no information as to what kind of space weather and radiation the MOM has experienced during its long travel and how much of impact the spacecraft has taken. 

ISRO has announced that on September 22, 2014, about two days before the crucial orbit insertion, it would attempt to test-fire the engine for five seconds. For the September 24 insertion ISRO also has 'Plan B' in place, if in case the procedure of the orbit insertion develops any difficulties. This backup plan involves firing of eight 22 Newton Thrusters for the insertion. All this meticulous planning by ISRO clearly indicates that much is at stake. Mars has always been a difficult planetary customer since the 1960s when humans first started undertaking missions to this planet. There have been more failures than successes to visit the Martian orbit. For any spacecraft to reach to Mars takes almost ten months and entering into the Martian orbit has always been a technical challenge.     

What does the possible success with the Mars mission mean for India? What if ISRO's mission fails? Would it be considered as a major blow to India's space programme? In fact, judging by the progress made by the MOM it could be comfortably claimed that ISRO has already achieved around 30 to 40% of the success: first by flawlessly launching the MOM on Nov 5, 2013 and subsequently taking this spacecraft out of the sphere of influence of the earth. Here the primary gravitational influence of earth which is experienced by spacecraft diminishes and slowly the satellite starts under the influences of other planets. For the last ten months, the MOM is following a correct trajectory towards its travel to Mars. Ultimately, what remains is to succeed with correct Mars orbital insertion on September 24 and subsequently taking scientific observations to high levels of space research. 

ISRO's space programme agenda has seen some great successes particularly in the last few decades. The successful Moon mission in 2008 is a landmark achievement. Surely the Mars mission would mean an additional feather in ISRO's cap and would boost India's global standing in space and technology. It may be noted that no Asian state has yet achieved the distinction of reaching the Mars. India could be the first. 

With the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the political dimensions have dominated the space discourse. The erstwhile Soviet Union made the US see 'red' when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The Apollo human Moon programme was conceived essentially not only for the purposes of a detail study of Moon but to equally demonstrate a superior technological capability of a state. The US success with the Moon programme was an expression of its great power status.

India needs to expand its Mars agenda further. It is for scientific, technological and commercial gains purposes. The political gains are incidental. The best window to undertake a mission to Mars, arises only once in 26 months. This is because owing to the different orbital motions of the planets, Mars comes closer to Earth only once in every 26 months. In the near future there would be such opportunities available in 2016, 2018 and 2020 and India should utilise all these opportunities gainfully.

Any major success achieved by India could assist the global efforts towards the possible human colonization of Mars. This would automatically increase India's status. Strategic superiority is not only about the display of nuclear weapons but also of alternative ideas. Mars is an idea whose time has come and any major success in this field holds the potential to transform a rising power like India into a great power.  

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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