So, India is on the way to Mars. By any standard it is a great achievement.
It is a technologically huge challenge to make a small, 1,350kg-class satellite to go 25 crore kilometres and study another planet of the solar system. It is a challenge, also, to use a small rocket to launch it in such a way that the Earth is used as a slingshot to power the satellite on its way to Mars. It is a challenge to have achieved this in Rs. 450 crore. It is a challenge to design a mission with just 15 kg of scientific instruments, 470 kg of other instruments that can do good science. It is a challenge to get it up and done within 15 months flat.
Whichever way you look at it, it is a phenomenal technological achievement, just to have tried all this. So, if everything is a challenge, why try it at all?
For one thing, you cannot employ some of the best engineers in the world, make them develop some of the most complex technologies and then not give them a challenge worthy of their capabilities. As Isro has demonstrated, even though everyone had looked at the Moon, it took the genius of Isro to find water there by a well-targeted mission.
Also, a large fraction of missions that have gone to Mars carried significantly old technology. Most recent missions have focused on landing on Mars and looking in detail at some spot or region on it.
A good, high-quality remote sensing satellite by a country renowned for its remote sensing technology is the correct thing by the correct space agency at the correct time. Mangalyaan, for example, carries a dedicated instrument to see if there is methane on Mars. That alone is worth the cost. Some earlier satellites have suggested that Mars has methane on its surface but pin-pointing its source will provide us with deep understanding of what goes on under the surface of Mars. And the other instruments will give us unprecedented information on the dynamics of its atmosphere.
So, we can only congratulate Isro for this brilliantly-designed mission and wish them well. India is already an important provider of satellites and satellite-launch vehicles. We can now also look forward to India participating as an important partner in the exploration of the great last frontier of space.
(The author is a professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai)