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    South Asia
     Nov 8, '13

India launches Asia's first mission to Mars
By Raja Murthy

For 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we've been wanderers. ... And the next place to wander to is Mars.
- Carl Sagan (1943-1996), cosmologist, New York, 1976.

Asia's first Mars mission took off on November 5 from India's south-east coast, in a blaze of fire, vapor and humanity's happily soaring aspirations in outer space.

The Mars craft-loaded rocket, blasting off like a US$72 million version of Diwali festival fireworks, made India the third country to attempt a Mars visit - after the United States and Russia. The European Space Agency has also targeted the red planet.

The 1,340-kilogram Mars Orbiter Spacecraft aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C25) was unofficially dubbed

"Mangalyaan" in the media. If all goes well, it will reach Mars next September 2014. That's when Mars orbits 365 million kilometers from Earth, circling the other side of the Sun.

History gives Asia's first attempt to reach Mars a bare 30% chance of success. Only 21 of 51 Mars-heading efforts have reached their destination. India would be hoping not to join the US, Russia and the European Space Agency - all failed to reach Mars in their first try.

Yet, even the Mars orbiter take-off was a momentous triumph for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), logistics providers to the ISRO Mars mission, expressed surprise that India managed its Mars launch "so quickly" and as scheduled. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced the mission to Mars in August 2012.

The flawless launch added to the glittering space reputation that ISRO has built on shoe-string budgets and innovation. The space agency has given India the world's sixth-largest space program, which has launched more than 70 satellites and completed a successful mission to the moon in 2008.

India went ahead of neighboring China with its Mars launch. But squashing any official sentiment of India-China space rivalry, the state-run Chinese media applauded India's Mars mission. State-run China Daily called it a "great achievement", saying: "the Mars orbiter, if successful, will increase the human race's store of knowledge and change our life."

Other short-sighted quarters greeted India's Mars mission with the usual patronizing noises. Sections of the Western media again sneered why a poverty-stricken country like India needs a mission to Mars. They sneered likewise of India's moon mission Chandrayaan-1 - which eventually became uniquely successful in detecting water traces in the moon.

India may not yet have eradicated poverty, but neither is it a beggar nation. It's a trillion-dollar economy expected to become the world's largest by 2050. Which makes India's space program more a growing necessity than a luxury hobby. Much of India's space projects are geared for telecommunications expansion, weather forecasting, disaster warning, search and rescue operations, telemedicine, tele-education, radio networking and satellite television services - in a lengthening list of satellite technology influences in daily life.

A chunk of India's space program funds itself. Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, earns more than US$20 million annually even with its minimal efforts in marketing space expertise, satellite payloads and space products like satellite imagery.

Over all, only universal positives emerge from any country developing non-weapons oriented technology, and in expanding frontiers of knowledge. Where would we be, for instance, if our ancestors sat in their ancient caves and refused to wander out their neighborhood, saying "what's the use?"

As astronomer Carl Sagan said that journeying to Mars was the latest dimension to the milestone journeys that mark evolution of history - from migration to new continents, to the great sea voyages of Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus. Expedition sponsors of such courageous travelers didn't ask, "Are you nuts wasting your time and our money?"

Who knows if a thousand years from now or 100 years, people will be working and holidaying in Mars - like in the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster Total Recall. As ISRO acknowledged, no other planet has aroused so much curiosity about possibility of life on it as Mars. Asia's first Mars craft expects no Martians to welcome it, but hopes to find methane, and other such atmospheric clues to supporting life.

In any case, ISRO's Mars-mission is the cheapest ever to get off Earth, and perhaps the most innovative. A primary concern was getting the spacecraft to Mars without a high-powered launcher and with the least amount of fuel - about 852 kg of propellants. ISRO used a space travel technique called a Hohmann Transfer Orbit - or a Minimum Energy Transfer Orbit.

Asia's first Mars vehicle uses the Earth's gravity as a slingshot; the Mars spacecraft will be orbiting the Earth for a month gathering speed, much like a whirling discus-thrower gaining momentum. Small onboard thrusters will nudge the spacecraft slowly to an orbit from where the Earth's gravity will hurl it to meet the Mars orbit. This reality existed earlier in space fiction, as did know-how to remote control an object nearly 400 million kilometers away, as the ISRO will be doing with the Mars orbiter next September.

The ISRO Mars vehicle carries a 15 kg payload for four scientific projects. [1] Mangalyaan's dedicated instrument to spot methane on Mars is by itself worth the Mars mission cost, said MN Vahia, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.

India's Mars mission [2] is part of the greater human destiny, inwards and outwards. One journey of progressive enlightenment is to the infinity of inner space of mind-matter within oneself - a sub-atomic inner voyage to the fundamental truths of nature. This is the universal, pure path to true happiness that the fully Enlightened Buddha has been said to have re-discovered and shared with the practice of Vipassana meditation. [3]

The outward voyage is to the infinity of the stars. Unmanned inter-planetary probes, like the ISRO Mars mission, are precious pathfinders to future journeys across the solar system - mere stepping stones to finding rest-houses in faraway galaxies, in travels across space beyond the Milky Way.

Visionary scientists have no doubt it's only a question of when, not if, manned spaceships sail into the great beyond of outer space. From his home in New York in 1976, Carl Sagan - whose iconic television series Cosmos unveiled the marvels of the universe to many - recorded the following words to future Mars explorers as part of the Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI) project, with messages recorded in a disc of gold and sent into space:
Maybe we're on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there - the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we're on Mars because we have to be, because there's a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process - we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we've been (homeless) wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you're on Mars is, I'm glad you're there. And I wish I was with you.
1. India Mars Orbiter Mission Payload.
2. India's Maiden Odyssey to Mars. Official mission video of the ISRO.
3. Vipassana meditation; the Science of Vipassana with Dr Paul Fleischman, alumni Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.

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