A Sputnik moment will happen this morning when India’s first-ever planetary probe, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), is pushed by its main engine into an elliptical orbit around Mars.
MOM and Mars are on different Sun-centric orbits and the spacecraft’s primary engine must fire to alter its heliocentric path enough for the planet’s gravity to take hold and pull MOM into its orbit.
This is the riskiest part as any glitch would force MOM to miss the rendezvous and blindly sweep past the planet into space.
MOM, however, carries insurance in the form of eight smaller motors to nudge the spacecraft into Mars orbit, though in a different orbital path than the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) intends.
MOM’s rendezvous with Mars happens at about the same time as Nasa’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe, but all eyes are on the Indian mission as no other spacefaring nation (except Europe whose Mars Express is currently orbiting Mars) was first time lucky on the Red Planet.
Japan’s Mars orbiter, Nozomi, launched in 1998, reached Mars but its engine failed and it continued on a heliocentric orbit before being shut down. Even the United States — a seasoned hand at Mars exploration — had so many heartbreaks with its early Mars missions that Nasa’s success rate barely touches 40% — despite recent successes.
Russia’s record is much bleaker: More than 50% of its Mars missions suffered launch failures, the biggest disappointment being the ambitious Phobos-Grunt sample return probe in 2011 (which, along with China’s Mars probe Yinghuo-1 — carried on the same rocket — failed to leave Earth’s orbit).
Against this background, Isro chief K Radhakrishnan was being modest when he recently announced that “85% of Isro’s mission objectives would have been met” if MOM successfully orbits Mars.
Isro scientists put together the mission in a record time of 15 months. That they have done it at a low cost of $73 million (a Boeing 777-9X, for comparison, costs $390 million) has made it the envy of other space agencies in the world.
Isro operates on a small budget which is just 0.34% of India’s budget. India’s space effort is three-pronged, with the foci on satellites, launch vehicles and planetary exploration, in that order.
Isro devotes 55% of its budget to satellites, 35% to launch vehicle development and less than 7% to planetary exploration. MOM rides on this shoe-string budget to showcase innovation and frugal engineering of a kind never seen before.
This will attract investors and encourage joint space exploration with other space agencies, such as the one Isro plans with Nasa. The two agencies are jointly developing a complex satellite with dual frequency radar systems, which will be launched by Isro in 2019-20.
Although Isro takes pride in offering low-cost satellite launches, it is yet to acquire heavy launch capabilities so essential to compete in a crowded space market.
Besides hastening the development of its flagship Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), which can loft up to five tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit, Isro could focus on building a single-stage-to-orbit booster that would cut satellite launch costs.
Isro could even design a logistics spacecraft like Russia’s Progress to serve as a low-cost supply ship, ferrying crew and supplies to the ISS.
That would enable the agency to become part of the international umbrella now expanding quickly over space research and communications.
Prakash Chandra is a science writer
The views expressed by the author are personal