MOM is circling Mars

India’s Mars Orbiter has made it to the top, but is it a one-hit wonder?

MOM is circling Mars
Up,up, and away. A PSLV rocket taking off last November taking the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) along for the ride. [Image credit: India Space Research Organization]

After a 650-million kilometer journey, pampered with uncharacteristic attention,  the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) put itself into orbit around the red planet. That means for that only for the second time a space agency has put a spacecraft around Mars on its first attempt (NASA took two attempts to get so far; the Soviet Union, three; ESA’s Mars Express got there on its first try in 2004).

Now that it’s delivered a payload into orbit around a neighboring planet, the Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO, has convinced the world it can also plan and execute long-term missions and the associated logistical nightmares.

The achievement has important consequences for scientific and political reasons, but we must be careful not to overstate this capability.

Until the Mars mission, ISRO functioned as a FedEx-for-space, launching the scientific instrument cargo, or scientific payload, of other countries, and Indian telecommunication and meteorological satellites into orbit around Earth using largely its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rockets. Since 1993, PSLV rockets have launched 65 satellites in 25 launches, including India’s Moon and Mars missions.

MOM’s success has helped India show up China and assert itself as a regional space-power that not only markets itself as a low-cost launch hub, but also as a country that can set the agenda for regional cooperation.

On a more cautious note, on the other hand, the mission draws the Indian government’s attention to the scientific payloads India can currently launch. The PSLV series of rockets are built to carry payloads of up to about 1,500 kg to the geostationary transfer orbit, which is as high as MOM needed to go before switching to a heliocentric orbit. This places direct limits on what kinds of instruments ISRO can or can’t send up.

For instance, while all of MOM weighed 1,500 kg, its scientific payload was just 15 kg. In comparison, the NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) space probe that got into orbit around Mars on September 21 weighed 2,454 kg and its scientific payload, 65 kg. So if mission scopes are to expand, and India is to make the best of the foreign interest, its scientific aspirations and technological capabilities will have to expand, too.

This can be good news for Indian cosmologists and astrophysicists who, like many other scientists in India, have been clamoring for a hike in research and development funding since the early 1990s.

Second, the mission was executed in a really short span of time. A feasibility study was conducted in 2010, the federal approval received in 2012, and the payload launched a year later, all on a feeble budget of about $74 million. That’s one-ninth the cost of the MAVEN space probe, $670 million. This bespeaks its original purpose being a demonstration of the perseverance of ISRO personnel, especially considering everything else about the mission was a cobbling together of well-tested components. That MOM had a scientific payload on board seems incidental even if its observations will soon be the center of (much less) attention.

So this would be the time to talk about the launch vehicle program that ISRO’s future really depends on: the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rockets. Unlike with the PSLV, the first GSLV launch came in 2001, offset in time by a decade because certain Russian commitments essential to the program didn’t come through. That meant that by 2014 the PSLV program had ten more years than the GSLV program did to stabilize itself, and become as reliable as it is.

The GSLV is expected to be able to carry at most 1,000 kg more to the geostationary transfer orbit than the PSLV. The difference – in capability as well as complexity – lies with the engines. The PSLV has a four-stage engine with alternating solid and liquid stages. The GSLV has a three-stage engine of solid, liquid and cryogenic stages. The cryogenic stage has been the stumbling block because it had to be indigenously developed and its first successful flight was only in January this year.

Hopefully the program will become more reliable in the next decade, and that’s when India’s claims about being a space-superpower can take off, too. Even if it has launched a spacecraft to Mars, the payload limit and the lack of an inclusive scientific agenda still stand in the way of taking full advantage of scientific interest and infrastructure on the ground. Going ahead, untying this knot is what will keep from reducing MOM’s achievement to an exhibition of ego rather than scientific temperament.

This story has been corrected on September 24, 2014, to reflect that ISRO was not the first space agency to get a Mars orbiter right on its first try. ESA did that first in 2004 with its Mars Express.

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  1. Thanks you for writing such a wonderful article to put the facts straight.Hope we don’t get overconfident as we have put only small payload of 15 kg whereas others have put 64 kg of payload. Hope a new mission to use GSLV-D5 to put more payload gets approved quickly and gets successful.Anyway achieving success on first maiden flight is no small feat and kudos to Indian Space scientists!!!

    Ravikanth V, September 23, 2014 at 11:54 pm
  2. Mr.Vasudevan, I don’t think you are a father. Only if you have become a father you can appreciate the baby’s steps in the beginning and that which ends even as an Olympic champion. But one has to go thru what is called growth. Hope you understood what I meant.

    Bindo, September 24, 2014 at 1:00 am
  3. Dear writer,

    You crave attention so bad that, on the day of a historical achievement, you have published such a negative aticle. Shame on you.

    Have you designed any electronics before? And do you know how challenging is it to achieve that with limited budget? Please do not write such articles for ISRO. People of India take pride in this organization. You should have waited for atleast a day.

    Kc, September 24, 2014 at 1:16 am
  4. Now it’s time for us to show our gratitude to the nation. Indians who are draining their brain to foreign countries, come back to our country as soon as possible. Finish ur commitments soon, ur nation has just made a history and waiting for you.

    Dilip (Chennai), September 24, 2014 at 1:49 am
  5. Very well articulated article, thank you. The mission is symbolic and demonstrates our ISRO’s scientific capability. I’m hopeful our new govt. will only be supportive of country’s scientific community, encourage with all means available and pragmatic enough to have or build a plan so, in a decade least, we indeed achieve what we want to be – equally a ‘space superpower’. Albeit this is still a proud moment for we the people of India. Congratulations to the ISRO’s scientific community who made this possible.

    Guru Dwarakanath, September 24, 2014 at 2:37 am
  6. True that ISRO is not the first space agency to get a Mars orbiter right on its first try, ESA had made it before. But it was not the effort of only single country. ESA represents Europian group Countries. So in that sense we have achieved it on our own. Three cheere to ISRO scintist. We are proud of you.
    Hope you will change your mind.

    Pratmod Shinde, September 25, 2014 at 6:01 am
  7. it may also be recorrected that Mars Express was alunched by a Soyuz rocket .One of the reasons for failure of Mars exploration is failure at lauch itself as the high argument of perigee required for Mars trajectory insertion is difficult to achieve .So while Mars Express did reach Mars(Beagle failed) it was not a single country or single agency effort .So Mars Express was not a First as it was a multiagency multicountry effort.India indeed was the first to put it as an agency and country in the first attempt.

    Prasanna, September 30, 2014 at 9:56 am
  8. There are few things which need correction in your article. First India is not a Federal structure, so the approval is not given by Federal government. Correct term would be Central government. I am really surprised how quickly the Indian origin folks forget their roots (or wont remember what government structure is followed in India) and rather cozy up to US way of talking.

    Second and most important, “Certain Russian commitments didn’t materialize”???? Not surprised that you have selective amnesia about how US blocked the tech transfer and purchase of cryogenic engines from Russia on the pretext that it will violate MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) treaty. Can anybody tell which missile in the world uses Cryogenic Engines? And to ask about MTCR treaty’s application it self – Recent news about Saudi Arabia purchasing DF21 missile from China – why didn’t US block it since its clear violation of MTCR???

    GSLV has 2 versions of the rocket, your statement that payload will double for GSLV holds good for first version. The second or also called as Mark III can actually launch 4.5ton category satellite’s on par with rest of the world. Read up more about the topic before you jump at the keyboard to write such myopic article.

    Asrao, September 30, 2014 at 10:15 am
  9. Someone needs to tell this genius ESA is a collection of 27 nations that did not launch the Mars express on its own. They had Russians do the launch using an Soyuz rocket. As far as we are concerned ISRO will fly high with GSLV-II/III ,ULV and RLV.

    raj, September 30, 2014 at 10:18 am
  10. and hey……ESA’s Space Express is launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket, which you conveniently ignored before proceeding with your Macaulayite preaching.

    So ISRO is the first Space agency that successfully launched and orbited a Mars mission in the fist attempt…now beat that.

    Asrao, September 30, 2014 at 10:24 am
  11. Since when did ESA belonged to a single country, many a times it was stressed in all anouncements from ISRO (credible source), that we are the first nation to try in first attempt because ISRO belongs solely to India not a consortium of members from many nations. That also puts us as third country in the list.

    Till all genius people understand this, you can write whatever you wish for the sake of free speech.

    Guru, September 30, 2014 at 10:28 am
  12. The rhetorical title of the article, “–is it a one hit wonder?” is unnecessary because it sounds sarcastic and insulting. For example, this is the first article I have read from this author. So is he a “one article wonder?” Such a question is merely a space filler – an excess of words in the absence of anything more smart to say

    bennedose, September 30, 2014 at 10:42 am
  13. Dear Vasudevan,

    tu chutya hai. Of the highest quality; if I might add ..

    Nj, September 30, 2014 at 10:54 am
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