India readies budget flight to Mars
- Published: 3 Nov 2013 at 09.24
- Online news:
Two years after it sent the cheapest-ever mission to the moon, India is set to launch a Mars mission for 80 million United States dollars, less than half the cost of a Boeing Dreamliner.
Mangalyaan, the Mars orbiter mission of India's space programme, is scheduled to launch Tuesday and a successful voyage and orbit insertion - about 300 days away - would make it the first Asian country to reach the red planet.
"All systems are on go," national space agency spokesman DP Karnik said. "We are expecting that in about 280 days including course corrections we will achieve a Mars orbit insertion."
Only the United States' Nasa and the European Space Agency have managed to launch successful missions to Mars. About 50 per cent of all missions have ended in failure.
"If India manages to insert a fully operational spacecraft into the Mars orbit, that alone would be a tremendous achievement," says Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society, a US-based organisation that advocates for space research and exploration.
The spacecraft will carry a 25-kilogramme payload of instruments and imaging equipment to study the atmosphere and surface of Mars.
India would not be expecting to add greatly to the knowledge about Mars, since more sophisticated missions by Nasa and ESA are still sending back data. Nevertheless, Karnik said, "Who knows? Chandrayaan (the country's moon mission) found water on the moon."
"About 85% of the goal is to demonstrate technological capabilities and gather inputs for future missions, 15 per cent is scientific objectives," he said.
"We are at present trying to learn with a modest approach in a limited way within our budget and capabilities."
Nasa's Mars orbiter MAVEN, to be launched in November, costs an estimated half a billion dollars.
"The MAVEN is a larger, more capable aircraft, but still to do an interplanetary mission in 80 million dollars is very, very cheap," Lakdawalla said.
"Simply to demonstrate that India has autonomously developed technologies for getting to Mars and entering its orbit would be a massive boost."
The short time span between the government approval and the window for Mars that opens once every 26 months, along with two test failures of a more powerful launcher, may have restricted the mission, said Ajay Lele of the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis.
The main challenge would be to see how the engines that propel the orbiter into the Martian atmosphere work after remaining silent for 300 days, and how the craft's insulation holds up on the voyage.
India has an advantage of being a late entrant into the game. It can build on past experiences and documented failures.
"A successful Mars mission would merely give India a boost in stature vis-a-vis China ... give it bragging rights in an international competition," Lakdawalla said.
As for the mission being part of an Asian space race, "A race is between equals; China is far ahead," Lele said, adding that China considers the US as its competition.
The analysts downplayed criticism that a country that is home to one-third of the world's poor cannot afford to engage in space exploration.
"Studies of early NASA missions indicated that the Apollo missions created 10 dollars worth of new technologies for every dollar spent," Lakdawalla said.
"You cannot see this as a zero sum game where every dollar is snatched from the mouths of the poor."
Lele said accurate predictions of Cyclone Phailin and the thousands of lives saved last month is evidence of the fruits of space technology.
"You cannot look at this mission in isolation, it is about progress," he said.
Next for India's space programme is a second moon mission in 2016-17, and a manned flight which the government has yet to approve.