The Mars Mission Moves out of Earth’s Gravity

JUST past midnight of November 30, India’s Mars Orbiter or Mangalyaan left earth’s gravitational pull for its ten-month long journey to Mars. This happened after a series of orbit raising manoeuvres undertaken by ISRO in which the highly elliptical orbit of Mangalyaan was successively raised by firing its liquid fuel engines. Finally, sun’s gravity
captured the Mangalyaan and it moved from a geocentric( earth centred) orbit to a heliocentric (sun centred) orbit.

Mars also has a heliocentric orbit. So how will the Mangalyaan – also on a heliocentric orbit – catch up Mars and go into a Mars centred orbit?

The trick comes from the kind of orbits both Mars and Mangalyaan has. Mangalyaan has a relatively elliptic orbit while Mars has a much more circular orbit. At some point the Mangalyaan’s orbit will cross the Mars orbit. That is the small window that exists; it allows – with some additional manoeuvres – Mangalyaan to be captured by Mars gravity, and from there orbiting around Mars.




There were three challenging parts to the Mars mission – the launch itself, raising the orbit successfully for the sun’s gravity to capture Mangalyaan and last, the capturing of the orbiter by Mars and put it in a Mars-centric orbit. The
first two have now been completed successfully and we now have to see whether the third stage is equally successful.


The second stage of the Mission did not pass without any hitch. Originally, five burns of the engines were envisaged to lift Mangalyaan’s orbit for sun’s gravity to capture it. The fourth burn was partially unsuccessful, requiring an additional burn. ISRO seems quite optimistic that this additional burn will not affect the final outcome of the
mission – there is adequate fuel for the last set of manoeuvres for it to go to Mars-centric orbit. This is where the Japanese Mars mission had failed – it ran out of fuel before it could reach Mars. So we should not underestimate the
challenge of any of the stages of the Mars mission.

While Indian space communications network has provided the communication support required for sending commands to Mangalyaan and for it to receive and perform the necessary tasks, India’s Deep Space Network is not enough for this purpose. In this, it has received help from NASA and also South African National Space Agency

There have been various criticisms of India’s Mars mission. One set of criticisms have originated from some of the
commentators and experts who have been critical of the Mars mission for being hasty and not having enough  scientific objectives. The second set of criticisms have been from well-meaning individuals from India as well as
not so well meaning criticism from abroad of a poor country like India that cannot feed its people, taking on such expensive missions.

It is true that the scientific objectives of the Mars mission are limited. The scientific payload was very small – the on-board instruments are only five and weigh a meagre 15 kg out of a weight of 1,350 kg lift-off mass of the space-craft. Of course, the bulk of this mass is the fuel required by the on-board engines that perform the necessary burns. It is also true that the project was put together in a hurry to utilise the 2013 window, without which the next window for such a mission would have been early 2016. Such windows occur only once every 26 months. Critics have also suggested that a part of the hurry is India’s unstated competition with China and this is a “vanity launch”.


However, it must also be recognised that ISRO’s primary goal for the Mars mission is not the scientific exploration of Mars. If it were so, then Mangalyaan is ill-suited for this venture. With existing orbiters, the Mars Rover, and the
NASA Maven Mars orbiter also reaching Mars at almost the same time as India’s Mangalyaan. ISRO will add very little to any additional scientific knowledge about Mars, its claims not withstanding.



The primary objective – and ISRO has stated this upfront – is developing technological capabilities of ISRO and demonstrating it to the world. ISRO says in its website what its technological objectives are:

  • Design and realisation of a Mars orbiter with a capability to survive and perform Earth bound manoeuvres,
    cruise phase of 300 days, Mars orbit insertion / capture, and on-orbit phase around Mars.


  • Deep space communication, navigation, mission planning and management.


  • Incorporate autonomous features to handle contingency situations.


In other words, it is largely about show-casing ISRO’s abilities to plan and undertake complex missions, handle
deep space communications and navigations, and handle contingencies. The scientific objective was stated by ISRO from the beginning to be a secondary objective and indeed it remains a small part of the mission.

Before we address other questions, we must register that Indian space program now is deeply constrained by the failure of its GSLV program. The indigenous cryogenic engines have yet to work successfully and this has meant ISRO continuing to use the PSLV launchers – that are relatively less powerful – as the work horse for its space program. This limits the kind of orbits that ISRO can plan and also affects the size of the payload that we can put into space.

There is some merit in the argument that ISRO’s focus should have been – and definitely should now be on making GSLV work. Otherwise, we might claim to have entered the space club as a full member, but we will still continue to be a junior one. And this has serious commercial implications for our space program.

Why should India spend money and scarce resources to develop these technological capabilities? And this relates to the second set of criticisms that India is facing – should we focus on such ambitious programs when we cannot provide the basic requirements of life? Should a poor country have the luxury of a space program when it cannot feed its people?


This question is not about what should be our priorities in science and technology. It is really about investing in
advanced science and technology projects and regarding any such investments as a luxury for India. It also juxtaposes the budget for science and technology against providing, for example, safe drinking water.


I am quite amazed how a set of well meaning people can fall prey to essentially neo-colonial understanding of poverty and development. The developed countries are rich and the developing countries are not – this is what we see around us. Why are the developed countries rich? It is precisely because they have developed science and
technological capabilities and are now living off this advanced knowledge. Today, when we buy goods in the market, including products of agriculture, we are also paying for the knowledge embedded in these goods. It might be the software that is there even in the cell-phones or TV sets that we use; it might be the materials that are used to build greenhouses, and a host of other products. Yes, a lot of this knowledge also goes to build luxury goods for the rich. But today, without scientific knowledge and technology, we cannot either manufacture goods or produce food for the people.


Those who criticise India for getting into high-tech ventures when it cannot feed its people, do it with a specific purpose. They are propagating the old division of labour developed under colonialism; the colonies will provide raw materials and engage largely in agriculture. The metropolitan powers would provide industrial goods and all
knowledge. That countries such as China and India broke out of this colonial mould is what irks the west.


Coming to India’s space program. In 2013 budget, the entire space program received a total allocation of Rs 6,792 crore out of which the budgetary support was Rs 5,615 crore or less than a billion dollars. Out of this, the Mars mission is only 10% of ISRO’s budget. By any standards, this is peanuts. The Maven space launch alone cost NASA about $672 million or about ten times what ISRO is spending on its Mars mission. Indeed, ISRO has created an enormous impact on those who deal with space for its low cost, yet highly effective space program.




This brings us to the next question, what way does a space program benefit the India people? There are a number of
ways a space program is essential for a country. One is of course studying the weather – the weather satellites tell us the state of the monsoon, when we are likely to have rains, and are therefore critical to agriculture. The tracking
of the tropical storms also bring out the importance of monitoring meteorological phenomena, in which satellites are an important component.
Indian Meteorological Department’s advance warning on Super Cyclone Phailin saved a number of lives. And of course, agriculture is still the main-stay of the people.


The second major use of the space program is in telecommunications and television. Satellites carry circuits that are
used for both communications and carrying the television signals to our homes. Except the few land-based channels – for example Doordarshan in India almost all other channels are satellite channels. Without satellites, we would not
have cable TV or direct Home TV. One may question on a TV program the benefits of a space program, the sad truth is that without satellites, there would be no such TV programs. If India does not have its own satellites, it would have to hire satellites from others, both for telecommunications and for TV.



Apart from this, a space program has other uses also. It does mapping of the land – satellite imagery – allowing for
planned development, knowing crop patterns, forest areas, water courses, and many other details indispensable for any government today.



The market for space launchers and satellites – including, weather, communications, scientific purposes – is a huge one. It is worth about $ 30 billion and is still growing. It is this market that is almost exclusively with the US and EU. All other including the Russian have only a small segment of this market.



It is this market that India and also China are eyeing. Indian costs – both for satellites and for launches – are far lower than the US and EU costs. If India can showcase its capabilities, it believes it can make its way into this space
launch and satellite market.



Finally, why do we always want to talk about wasteful expenditure only when we look at investments in science. Why do we not analyse the tax foregone that is reported in every budget. In 2012-2013, the tax foregone was an astronomical Rs 533,582 crore ($97 billion). Contrast this with the total science budget, which is less than 10% of
this amount. The customs duty foregone on jewellery, precious stones, diamonds, etc in 2010-11 was about Rs 49,000 crore or about ten times the budget for space that year.



There are far better places to hunt for money for the poor than from India’s already meagre science budget. It is the rich that we have to tax if we want to provide even a basic standard of living to the Indian people, not starve science and technology of funds.