The sky really seemed the limit on Wednesday morning as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit and into Indian space history.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while congratulating the scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), rightly noted that we have achieved “the near impossible”.
Given the technological limitations and financial constraints, the Mangalyaan, or the Mars mission, is unique in many ways. On a shoe-string budget of Rs. 450 crore, it is an indigenous programme completed for launch in less than two years. This is much quicker and less expensive than any other Mars mission.
Only a handful of countries have been able to cross this frontier of interplanetary exploration, and India’s entry into this elite club comprising the United States, Russia and Europe is amazing. The space exploration arena is getting crowded and it is important to be ahead of your competition.
India, by becoming the first Asian country to launch a successful Mars mission, has taken the wind out of the sails of nations like China, Japan and South Korea which have ambitious space programmes planned.
Isro’s Mars mission is predominantly a technology demonstrator. The success of MOM shows that India has the potential for deep space remote controlling and communication and navigation.
The MOM — which will orbit Mars for six months — is also carrying scientific equipment and will study the planet’s surface and atmosphere, especially the presence of methane gas.
Mangalyaan’s success is also expected to increase India’s launch capabilities. Isro has successfully combined state-of-the-art technology and frugal engineering thereby setting the benchmark for future interplanetary missions by any country/agency. While the mission is a major achievement, there are areas where Isro has to focus.
At present, it is only capable of launching payloads below two tonnes. The government must encourage science education by investing more in research and development in schools and universities.
As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, under whom Mangalyaan was approved, said during the 101st Indian Science Congress: “Science education in our country requires much more attention…. We must increase our annual expenditure on science and technology to at least 2% of our GDP.” However, for the moment, let’s bask in our moment in the sun, or shall we say stars?