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.