November 10, 2013

  People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 45

November 10,

Mission to Mars





Mission started off in
spectacular fashion on November 5 with a text book
launch and precise
positioning of the Mangalyaan (literally craft to
Mars) spacecraft in its
planned orbit around Earth. The successful launch
was hailed in India
as a
tribute to the country’s growing technological
prowess and an embellishment of
national pride. Internationally, it was greeted
mainly with considerable acclaim.
But there was also some criticism, at home as well
as abroad.


most of the effusive
praise as well as the criticism were clichéd. The
former, especially in India,
was prematurely
self-congratulatory and too full of smug
satisfaction to stomach even a hint of
doubt: anyone raising critical issues was regarded
as a party pooper, and any
ifs and buts were attacked as rude interruptions of
what should have been
unadulterated celebration. The critiques, both in
India and in western media, were
almost all about Indian poverty and backwardness,
and questioned, censured or
even mocked India for embarking on a space mission,
as if a developing country
had no business getting engaged with advanced
science and technology: this
criticism left no room for any appreciation for a
difficult job undertaken and done
well, or for India adding to the pool of knowledge
and capability. There were
also many exaggerated comments about an Asian space
race, about India
trying to go one up on China in
particular, a sentiment unfortunately
echoed in India
by some over-enthusiastic supporters of the mission.


article argues that
understanding India’s
Mission calls for putting aside these blinkers. The
should be looked at in the context of India’s
space programme, as part of a broader science and
technology policy, itself
located within the developmental path that India
has embarked on since Independence.


In that
context, it is indeed
legitimate to raise questions about this Mars
Mission, its goals, deliverables
and benefits. Any such mission or programme is about
choices, what to do, when
and how. What will be gained and at what cost?
Surely nobody can argue that the
Indian public or any concerned citizen cannot ask
these or related queries.


can it be anybody’s case
that all science, all quest for knowledge and
capability, all creative endeavour,
should only be weighed against one measure, namely
its direct and immediate
contribution to poverty alleviation? Do science, art
or culture not have any
autonomous place in the life of a nation and its
people? Can all societal and
developmental activity be reduced to either-or
propositions? These are
legitimate questions too.


But first
let us take a closer look
at the Mission




originally announced by ISRO, the Mission
to Mars was to be
launched using the much more powerful GSLV
(Geo-Stationary Launch Vehicle)
rocket that would have carried a larger satellite
with more instruments.
Unfortunately, the GSLV could not be fully developed
in time, and had
encountered many failures, chiefly due to problems
with the indigenous
cryogenic stage. In the absence of the GSLV, the
Mars Mission was reconfigured to
a launch using ISRO’s tried and tested work horse,
the PSLV (Polar Satellite
Launch Vehicle). For this writer, it is very
important to understand this
change and its implications, because it has crucial
bearing on the objectives
and potential benefits or otherwise of the Mars
Mission. The significance of
this change has been missed by most commentators. It
has been deliberately
underplayed by proponents of the Mission and in
order to boost public perceptions of achievements of
Mars Mission. A lack of
understanding of this change among most critics has
led to their either
misplaced criticism or wholesale rejection of the
entire Mars venture. Again
for this writer, the use of PSLV has meant that India’s
Mars Mission is sub-optimal
and will not yield the originally expected benefits
in scientific understanding
nor advance Indian technological capability to the
extent envisaged. But more on
this later.


In the
absence of the more powerful
GSLV, the methodology adopted for the Mars Mission
was similar to
Chandrayaan-1, India’s
maiden mission to the Moon. Since PSLV does not have
the power to
directly take heavier spacecraft completely out of
Earth’s gravitational pull
into inter-planetary space, the strategy adopted was
to put the craft into
Earth orbit and then fling it into space in a

along a
particular trajectory and use
the solar system’s gravitational forces, along with
small well-timed boosts, to
get the spacecraft to the desired orbit around Mars,
and earlier in Chandrayaan
around the Moon.


difference of course is that
Chandrayaan had to travel only about 400,000km to
the Moon whereas Mangalyaan
or the Moon Orbiter Mission (MOM) would have
traveled over 680 million km by
the time it starts orbiting Mars.


there, the small scientific
payload comprising 5 sets of instruments weighing
just 13kg aboard the 1350kg
spacecraft would begin their experiments. These
different instruments would
look for methane in the Martian atmosphere, measure
hydrogen isotopes in the
atmosphere so as to assess how water vapour may have
escaped from Mars, look at
the composition of the Martian surface through
infra-red imagery and also
photograph the red planet and its two Moons, Phobos
and Deimos.


methane experiments have come in
for considerable criticism on the grounds that
NASA’s Curiosity rover traveling
on the Martian surface has not found any traces of
methane, the charge being
that India’s experiments are like re-inventing the
wheel and nothing will come
of it. This is uncharitable and mistaken to boot.
Atmospheric measurements at
various locations will yield different findings not
necessarily available from
near-surface readings from a limited area on Mars.
ISRO has also been having
discussions with NASA to explore areas of
complementarity and configure the
experiments accordingly.


It must be
kept in mind that not all
science is about spectacular “Eureka
moments,” science is also about taking incremental
steps and adding bits and
pieces of knowledge complementary to pre-existing
information and adding to a
growing pool.  Having
said that, there is
no escaping the fact that the science component of
the Mission
is quite low key, and limited in
scope. Most of the limitations come from the small
size of the spacecraft, the
fuel it carries and the payload. These have also
meant that the Orbiter will be
in a highly elliptical orbit around Mars, going as
far as 80,000km away from
the surface, severely limiting the measurements and
observations its
instruments can make. And these limitations are, in
turn, due to the low
capacity of the PSLV launcher compared to the
hitherto unavailable GSLV.   




November 5, the MOM spacecraft was
placed precisely in its designated orbit around
Earth in a highly elliptical
orbit with perigee (shortest distance from the
planet) of 246.9km and apogee
(longest distance from the planet) of 23,566km. This
elongated trajectory will
be further elongated in stages and used to build up
velocity of the craft till
it is fast enough at the perigee to be flung out
into space, escape Earth’s
gravity and proceed towards Mars. It is proposed to
do this through 6
successive burns or firing of booster rockets on the


The first
of these orbit-raising
manoeuvres or burns
was successfully carried
out early this morning (Thursday, November 7) when
MOM was placed in an orbit
with apogee of around 28,793km. Subsequent burns
will take the craft to
40,000km, 70,656 km, around 100,000km and lastly
around 200,000km. After this,
on December 1, the spacecraft will be flung out to
inter-planetary space in a
transfer orbit, first to orbit the sun and finally,
on September 24, 2014, to
where it can be captured by the gravity of Mars and
start orbiting the red


All these
critically dependent on precision
as regards both location and timing across millions
of kilometers with the MOM
spacecraft traveling at high speeds, will be
controlled by ISRO’s
Bangalore-based tracking centre ISTRAC which has now
taken over mission control
from the Sriharikota launch centre assisted by
Indian ship-borne tracking
systems positioned in the South Pacific near Fiji,
and further aided by ground
stations in Port Blair and Brunei and Biak in
Indonesia, as well as NASA’s Deep
Space Network’s stations in Canberra, Madrid and
Goldstone in the US. 


Mangalyaan launch and the first
orbit raising
manoeuvre have gone extremely well so far.
But there is a long way to
go to September 24, 2014. As such, the current
exultation and the proclamations
of triumph at India’s
Martian venture where others such as China
and Japan
have failed, is premature. China’s
Mars craft was unable to leave Earth orbit due to
failure of the Russian
launcher, whereas Japan’s
overshot Mars and could not capture the Martian
gravity. Other
attempts have crashed onto the Martian surface. India
has the usual advantages of
the late starter, learning from others’ mistakes and
incorporating corrective
or precautionary measures.




With all
these limitations, if
Mangalyaan does indeed succeed in entering stable
Martian orbit and staying
there conducting its scientific experiments even for
a substantial part of the
planned six months, ISRO and India would indeed have
done well. But most of the
kudos would be chiefly for just having reached Mars
and placing a craft in
orbit around it.


original goal of the Mars
Mission, announced when it was expected to be
powered by GSLV, was to “develop the
technologies required for
design, planning, management and operations of an
interplanetary mission.” Over
the past week, ISRO spokespersons have been
repeatedly emphasising that the Mission
is mainly a
“technology demonstrator.” However, in the
considered opinion of this writer,
this Mission has
been more of a “capability
demonstrator,” to show India
can do something like this.


Mars Mission had been undertaken with the GSLV, it
would not only have yielded
better science through deployment of more and better
instruments, it would also
importantly have showcased India’s
heavy launch capability which India
presently lacks. Without GSLV, India
today depends on other nations such as the European
Space Agency to launch
high-orbit communications satellites for TV and
telephony at more than 3 times
the cost it would itself had incurred. And India
continues to miss out on
significant commercial opportunities that GSLV could


reasons that can only be conjectured, despite
knowing that GSLV would
not be available for a 2013 Mars Mission, ISRO and
India’s political leadership
decided not to wait for the next window of
opportunity in 2016 or 2018, and put
more human and financial resources into development
and proving of the GSLV, but
to go ahead with a PSLV-based mission even though
the scientific and
technological dividends would be modest. Perhaps the
calculus was that the prestige
dividend and the morale boost for ISRO, quite
discomfited by repeated failures
of the GSLV, and for the people at large, would
compensate. These objectives
are not ignoble and maybe one should not turn one’s
nose up at them. But one
should acknowledge all this and put all factors into
perspective while
evaluating India’s




the big debate about whether
India, as a poor developing country, with such a
high percentage of its people
suffering from poverty, malnourishment, food
insecurity, poor sanitation and so
on, should spend so much money on a space mission,
that too to Mars, with
little or no tangible benefits for the Indian poor
or the Indian people in


The Mars
Mission will cost around Rs 450
crore or $75 million, less than a sixth of NASA’s
MAVEN Mission
to Mars later this month. As space
missions go, this is low cost indeed. It is also a
very small proportion of India’s space
programme budget, which is itself
only 0.35 percent of India’s
budget. And within this comparatively small space
budget, which goes mostly
into satellites for communication, weather and
remote sensing, navigation, and
launch vehicle development such as for GSLV, the
budget for science and
exploration is only 8 percent. Should one grudge a
notably small fraction going
to science and developing technological capability? 


Would it
make a big difference to India’s
alleviation effort, for which lakhs of crores are
supposedly earmarked, if
these Rs 400 crores are not spent on the space
programme? Surely, if poverty
levels have not gone down, reasons lie in political
economy, in resource
allocation to benefit the rich and growing
middle-classes, in poor
implementation of anti-poverty programmes. Why look
for scapegoats and easy
targets like space ventures or science in general? 


space programme has been,
almost uniquely in the world, and arguably even more
so than the erstwhile
Soviet Union’s, heavily oriented to applications,
such as for education, remote
sensing for mapping and locating natural resources,
communications, weather
observation and prediction (as during the recent
Phailin cyclone in Odisha and
AP) etc, in other words for direct developmental
benefits rather than to
scientific inquiry or exploration. In fact, critics
of India’s
science and technology policy point to
low investment in basic sciences and scientific
research as a major factor
underlying India’s
decline in global standings in both science and


To argue
that even small expenditure
on scientific research, currently at a miserable
level of less than 1.5 percent
of GDP, is wasteful unless it delivers immediate and
tangible benefits on the
ground is retrograde, completely misunderstands the
relationship between
science and technological advancement, and stands in
opposition to India’s self-reliant
path of development. India’s
development calls not for abandoning science and
scientific research but
in orienting it better or differently both for
short-term benefits as well as
for longer-term developmental dividends.