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
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
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.  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  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
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.